There has never been a better time to consider a career in journalism. Newspapers are thriving, magazines are innovating, online journalism listicles are becoming more substantive, and cable-news talking heads are shouting at holograms.
Journalists are living up to our reputation as the country’s most trusted profession (at least compared to IRS agents and American Airlines customer-service representatives). Whether it’s our nuanced and thoughtful analysis of hot-button topics such as gay marriage or our tenacious coverage of the terrorist attack in Benghazi and Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic in Philadelphia, people know you can count on us to get the story right.
Would you like to succeed in this environment? As a long-time reporter and media critic, I’m happy to share tips on what to do if you want to make it in modern journalism.
Don’t Sweat the Details
Is there a difference between an Evangelical and an evangelist? Who cares? Don’t know the technical reason why Christians celebrate Easter? Will anyone really notice? Do you confuse the author of Hebrews with Paris booksellers? We all do! Whether you’re reporting on important U.S. Supreme Court decisions or how many people died in a terrorist bombing, what’s most important is getting the story first, not getting the story right, particularly under the pressure of a twenty-four-hour news cycle.
Don’t Question Authority
If the powers-that-be suggest that a terrorist attack on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 was the spontaneous and direct result of an unseen YouTube video with junior-high-school production values, who are you to be skeptical?
If these same authority figures suggest that therefore it’s dangerous for Americans to speak freely, share their religious views, and express their artistic sensibilities however they want, you should probably just join them in calling for restrictions on these First Amendment freedoms.
Likewise, if a politician suggests that the reports of scandal surrounding his administration are overblown, leave him alone already. Would he lie? One good thing to remember is that, generally speaking, only Republican politicians mislead. The sooner you figure that out, the more quickly you’ll be on your way to working at the New York Times.
Recently, some journalists asked the military about reports that the armed services were cracking down on Evangelical Christians. Military spokesmen assured the reporters that there was nothing to worry about. The good reporters figured that meant the case was closed.
Remember Your Job Is to Advance Narratives, Not Report Facts
CNBC’s John Harwood said recently, “Those of us in political-media world should just shut up about ‘narratives’ and focus on what’s true.” Spoken like a real nobody. We’re in the Golden Era of narratives. Facts are for old-timers. Take the story about the Health and Human Service Department’s Obamacare-inspired regulation requiring all employers (regardless of religious objections) to provide employee insurance covering birth control, sterilization, and abortifacients at no cost to the employee. Would you rather report the actual details about this, including claims that it is an unprecedented restriction on religious liberty, or simply call any attempts to fight it part of a “war on women”? Exactly. You know the right thing to do.
Want to write, say, a Biblical Case for Gay Marriage? Push forward, no matter what trouble the Bible gives you in making that case. The narrative is what’s key.
Quote Directly from Press Releases
After abortion doctor Gosnell was convicted of first-degree murder, NARAL Pro-Choice America issued a press release saying it showed how evil pro-lifers were. The New York Times quoted from this press release without asking even a single tough follow-up question, such as why NARAL investigators never reported that Gosnell’s clinic, which they inspected, was so horrific.
Or take it further, as many reporters have done with the progressive public relations campaigns from Faith in Public Life (FPL). When religious leaders opposed the HHS mandate, FPL suggested that they were being too partisan. Reporters agreed. But when FPL ran a bus tour featuring nuns who opposed Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, reporters highlighted that tour in front-page pieces and fluffy profiles. Don’t worry that these campaigns directly contradict each other — just print whatever the PR firm tells you to.
Pick Sides (i.e., promote sympathy for one side and hostility for the other)
A good reporter demonizes one’s political opponents, be they Tea Partiers, pro-lifers, traditional Christians, or the Koch brothers. At the same time, be sure to give favorable coverage to the people whose causes you believe in fervently.
If covering, for example, the debate over whether to redefine marriage law to include same-sex couples, be sure to pick highly sympathetic people to profile. Don’t just present the loving but otherwise boring long-term gay couple. And don’t quote the people who make rational arguments that, ideally, children should be raised by their biological fathers and mothers. Instead, could you find a vaguely misogynistic, barely literate yokel to say something dim-witted about homosexuality? If you work hard enough, you can!
Don’t Describe People: Label Them
Start with the assumption that your own views are moderate. Within your newsroom, they probably are, even if last night at a colleague’s dinner party you argued for single-payer health care and mandatory re-education camps for homeschoolers. Then, instead of describing the views of people outside your newsroom, just label them “right-wing,” “anti-abortion,” or “extremely conservative.” You might be wondering if, finding rational argument too burdensome, you can just resort to calling the people you disagree with bigots and dismiss them. Turns out you can!
If you need to beef up your word count, throw in a few stereotypes and clichés about backwoods believers. Be careful even here, though, as you don’t want to showcase views that might catch on.
Hype the Issues You Personally Care About and Downplay Those You Don't
Mainstream studies indicate that the percentage of Americans who identify as gay is somewhere in the low single digits. But according to Gallup, Americans believe — on average — that 25 percent of the population is gay. A good reporter helps feed this perception by making sure that at least one out of every two stories emphasizes homosexuality. No one will begrudge you if you make sure to include angles dealing with same-sex attraction in 100 percent of your stories.
As for less important stories — the oversight of abortion clinics, the 9/11/12 terror attack in Libya, and current threats to religious liberty come to mind — you can either ignore them completely or just choose to downplay as much as you want. Your call.
Listen to the Insects of the Hour
A good reporter gets story ideas by following the lead of other journalists or replaying or responding to whatever is on Fox News or MSNBC. Another good technique is to build stories just around people who solicit media coverage.
Edmund Burke wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France: "Because half-a-dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that of course they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome insects of the hour."
But Burke was talking only about history. He actually thought the opposite was true when it came to journalism. I can’t find the quote right now but he definitely said to give false prominence to those who shout the loudest.
Use Language Tricks to Obfuscate
You may have heard that begging the question is a logical fallacy. But are logical fallacies bad, or just effective debate techniques? To that end, try using phrases such as “marriage equality” as the Baltimore Sun and Associated Press do.
And when it comes to abortion, make sure you use as many euphemisms as possible. It’s only an unborn baby if the mother wants it. If the mother doesn’t want it, it’s totally a fetus forever. No, really, forever. Even though technically a newborn is no longer a fetus, don’t tell the New York Times. It’s not a war on science so much as a war on ... babies.
And make sure that your framing always favors your particular side. It’s always about a woman’s “abortion rights” and never about the “right to life” of unborn children. Laws regarding abortion should always be termed as restrictive, never protective. You’ll get the hang of it.
What’s nice about these tips is that they are easy to learn and fall back on. Whether you use them because of confirmation bias, laziness, or outright ideological agendas, you’re in good company and have a bright future ahead of you.
Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is senior editor at The Federalist and a longtime journalist. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, CNN, National Review, GetReligion, Ricochet, Christianity Today, Federal Times, Radio & Records and many other publications.
Complement with Tim Carney on how to write like a columnist, Kelly Jane Torrance on the habits of effective journalists, and Derek Draplin on the six things you need to know about working in media.