Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Some "other" skills essential to being a journalist

I recently read a post on the blog 10,o00 Words that refers to 3 Underrated but essential skills for journalists. While of course journalists must be strong writers, critical thinkers, possess inquisitive minds, possess the ability to decipher complex topics, etc,... there are also some other skills that often go overlooked.

According to 10,000 Words blog author Mark S. Luckie, a few of those "other" skills include: Math, Design and Interpersonal skills. I agree with those selections. My only consternation here is that my personal list of "underrated but essential skills for journalists" would include far more entries. For the sake of brevity, these three are interesting.

Math is not only an underrated skill for journalists. It is just plain underrated in society. Starting at an early age far too many people hear that they simply are not good at math. I find that to be hogwash. Math takes practice and work. It comes easy to only a select few. It is worth the effort to journalists because on any given day many news stories not only include numbers, but must be based on mathematical calculations in order to relate information to readers. For example, if a CEO is going to be paid $8 million but also gets stock options, deferred compensation and other "benefits" not included in the base salary, then I want to know what the total is as a reader. Not only that, but I want to know what $8 million means. What does that buy a person? I can't really relate. How many mid-priced cars does that buy? I want it in real terms. And I want it accurate. On another note, I want my taxes and potential tax increases explained in plain and simple terms when I read the paper. I don't want complex accountant formulas. I want it laid out for me in terms I can relate to without doing the math myself. That means the journalist must do the math. Finally, if a journalist is not strong at math then there are likely numerous stories that fly right by without notice. For example, the percentages that don't add up in the school budget, the dollar figures that are inflated by a local business, or the city council that slides through a purchase using a long spreadsheet of figures.

Design is a bit more obvious to me. Journalists simply need to understand how readers absorb information. Design is one way to ensure all those words will even get to the readers. I want journalists who can imagine design: Able to determine what makes a good photo or a good graphic in the early stages. A journalist who can package elements to make them jump off the page or the screen.

Finally, interpersonal skills. As a professor, this one is difficult. I have had students who possessed many of the tools to become strong journalists. However, they lacked the personal presence to make an impact on those they interact with. This does not mean failure is imminent. However, it can be the difference between getting a story, landing an interview and building relationships rather than being shuffled into the background and forgotten. The fact is, making a positive impression on people is essential to building staying power as a journalist.

What other essential skills do you find underrated for journalists? How about overrated?