We teach teens to see the world through a journalistic lens. But what does that mean? And how can that help to teach global awareness and media literacy?

Stories without borders Can you think like a journalist

Two journalists reporting from a war zone. (Credit: South_agency from Getty Images Signature)

Journalists look for stories that have universal significance. The theme of our mid-year fundraising drive is Stories Without Borders. All kinds of issues have universal significance: The need or lack of housing, health threats, violence and crime, food, the environment, mental health. These are things that pull people together across borders: sports, music and movies, for example. Seeing how people from different nations face similar problems is global awareness.

In getting students to research, report and write stories for publication they seek out credible sources of information and in so doing learn how to measure the reliability and accuracy of information and how to account and balance out bias. This is the essence of media literacy.

Journalists think differently. They are skeptical but not cynical. They give people the benefit of the doubt and try to decipher what people mean when they say something. Journalists stay mentally prepared to be surprised at all times. They think fast and distill complicated, tedious information into the gist of what people need — or might want — to know.

Ultimately, journalists search for truth and inspiration to make the world a better place, said News Decoder correspondent Katharine Lake Berz. Berz was a management consultant when she took a Fellowship in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto. She was a consultant at McKinsey & Company for 10 years and has since advised a number of nonprofit organizations. She holds a Bachelor of Commerce from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and a Master of Philosophy in International Relations from Cambridge University.

“Journalism has helped me analyse issues from multiple standpoints,” Benz said. “As a management consultant we are hired to come up with the ‘right answer’. As a journalist we learn that that there are no ‘right answers’ but rich and different perspectives.”

Every person a journalist meets, every problem they encounter is the beginning of a compelling story worth telling the world through an article, a video, a photo or a podcast.

They don’t just pass the time when talking to people; instead they gather information and try to find greater meaning and significance in what they learn. Journalists want to know not only what is happening, but why it is happening, how it came to happen and what can be done to rectify the situation. It means seeing events through a global lens and through multiple perspectives.

We decided to ask our correspondents to tell us what they think it means to “think like a journalist.”

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Jonathan Sharp: A journalist thinks not only about the facts themselves, but what is behind them, and what happens as a result.

Jonathan Sharp joined Reuters after studying Chinese at university. That degree served him well, leading to two spells in Beijing. A 30-year career also took him to North America, the Middle East and South Africa, covering everything from wars to high-tech to the Olympics. His favorite posting was to Hong Kong, where he currently lives.

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Maggie Fox: Journalists – at least good journalists – think critically. The first thing you learn to do is question who you are talking to, why you are talking to them, and how they know what they are talking about. You can apply this to anything. If a friend tells you vaccines are dangerous, for instance, you can ask them and yourself: How do you they know this? What is their own expertise and/or source of information? What are their biases? You learn quickly that anecdotes are not equal to facts, and that confidence doesn’t equal expertise. Secondly, you learn to identify the headline. What’s important? What is the first thing to know about a situation? People tend to meander when they’re talking, but journalists pick out what matters.

Maggie Fox has been reporting on health and science for more than 20 years and is currently a consulting editor to Medscape and WebMD and a consultant on health and science news. She has covered conflict, politics and other international events from London, Hong Kong and Beirut. She has covered the cloning of Dolly the sheep, Ebola epidemics, stem cell technology, vaccine controversies and other stories for Reuters, CNN, National Journal and NBC News. She lives in Washington, DC.

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Susan Ruel: To think like a journalist, one must be skeptical (if your mother says she loves you, check it out). Keep an open mind (avoiding prejudice and striving for objectivity as much as possible), and think dispassionately about the big picture by asking and answering the questions WHO WHAT WHEN WHERE WHY AND HOW, and writing in clear, vivid language that can be understood by the general reader. Knowledge via travel, human connections and extensive reading about other cultures, continents, faiths and languages are essential.

Susan Ruel worked on the international desks of the Associated Press and United Press International and reported for UPI from Shanghai, San Francisco and Washington. She has written and edited articles and books for the United Nations, including reports from Nigeria. A former journalism professor with a PhD in writing and literature, she co-authored two French books on U.S. media history and was a Fulbright scholar in West Africa. Based in New York City, she is currently hematology/oncology editor for MDedge/Medscape. 

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Nelson Graves: A good journalist needs to set aside any pre-conceived notions when reporting a story and always keep an open mind. Is it a “good” day when the stock market goes up? Not necessarily; lots of investors have bet on falling prices. And a good journalist needs to be honest to build trust with authoritative sources.

Nelson Graves is founder and president of News Decoder. An experienced educator and administrator, Graves was a correspondent, bureau chief and regional managing editor at Reuters for 24 years, holding posts in Washington, Paris, New Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Milan and Tokyo. He later served as admissions director at Johns Hopkins University’s graduate program in international relations in Italy.

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Betty Wong: Going beyond the obvious to figure out what is really the story, how to make your audience care and how to best tell it.

Betty Wong was global managing editor of Reuters from 2008-11, with 29 years of experience at the Wall Street Journal and Reuters. She covered white collar crime on Wall Street from Ivan Boesky to Michael Milken in the 1980s, led U.S. corporate news coverage from the dot com bubble to rubble and was global equities editor for Reuters overseeing 500 reporters covering company and stock market news. Her favorite beat was covering the U.S. stock market as a reporter and the unique personalities on brokerage floors

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Helen Womack: As a journalist, I know there are always at least two sides to any story and I must be fair. I try to be empathetic too but that doesn’t mean I buy dubious tales. At the end of the day, my job is to inform readers so they can draw their own conclusions.

Helen Womack is a specialist on former Communist countries. From 1985-2015, she reported from Moscow for Reuters, The Independent, The Times and the Fairfax newspapers of Australia. Since the refugee crisis of 2015, she has written for the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, about how refugees are settling in Europe.

Hear more of Helen’s thoughts on what it means to think like a journalist in this video:

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Marcy Burstiner is the educational news director for News Decoder. She is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and professor emeritus of journalism and mass communication at the California Polytechnic University, Humboldt in California. She is the author of the book Investigative Reporting: From premise to publication.

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JournalismStories without borders: Can you think like a journalist?