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Home > Publications > Quill > First Principles of Journalism


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Wednesday, October 18, 2006
First Principles of Journalism

Compiled by Michael Bugeja

Act with urgency

“Get it right and make it relevant, lively and concise.” — Alan Miller, managing editor/news, Columbus Dispatch

Be professional

“A courteous journalist will get far more information than the blustering, demanding one. Besides, courtesy in dealing with obnoxious sources shows your professionalism. … And do your interviews face to face.” — Dick Doak, senior columnist, Des Moines Register

Cover your ass

“While this may seem a cowardly way to approach journalistic principles, it is in fact the opposite. Should a reader or your editor question your story — if you have followed CYA — you will have never single-sourced, you will have verified and identified the sources you can, and pointed out if other sources are not available and why. It is an exhausting process which, if followed, will ensure that in backing up your story you have left no reachable stone unturned.” — Kate Webb, combat reporter, United Press International and Agence France Presse

Don’t assume

“Denise can be spelled ‘Denyse,’ and the angry young artist can wear a two-carat diamond and live in a tract home. More often than you’d ever expect, man does indeed bite dog.” — Allison Engel, freelance magazine journalist, Meredith Corporation, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post

Enlighten the electorate

“It is important for the Press to deliver the kind of information the electorate needs to function intelligently in a democratic society, rather than pandering to what the public says it wants. The First Amendment was intended to protect the people from government tyranny, not to benefit the Press.” — Jim Schwartz, longtime chairman of the journalism department at Iowa State University and past president, Association for Education in Journalism

Factor in the future

“No story ever is complete. It may accurately present the past and present, but there’s always the future to consider — what may happen next and what does happen next. And it’s in the area of ‘future,’ both in anticipation and follow-up, that most news stories and some journalists fail the reader.” — Gene Policinski, executive director, First Amendment Center

Grow intellectual muscle

“To be a truly successful journalist, a writer must be able to do more than line words up and send them marching across a page to do his bidding. There must be purpose and a meaningful reason for that purpose. That comes from curiosity and a respect for digging. Scientists call it research. But it takes, too, a respect for intellect and a desire to develop your own intellectual muscle.” — Harry Heath, former Iowa State University professor and director, Oklahoma State University Journalism School

Have high standards

“I kept a cartoon taped to the window in my office at the Seymour (Iowa) Herald that looked back into the shop. The caption read: ‘If you don’t have time to do it right, when are you going to find time to do it over?’ ” — Wayne Davis, former publisher and Iowa State University journalism professor

Include all voices

“Too often, journalists are lazy and don’t make extra efforts to include all voices in their work. If a desired source is not available, there are always other alternatives to represent a variety of viewpoints.” — Andrea Tortora, managing editor, Cincinnati Business Courier

Just the facts

“It is the facts that are the focus. The rest is just skillful, even brilliant, presentation.” — Terry Anderson, Iowa State University alumnus and former Middle East bureau chief, The Associated Press

Know for whom you work

“Get it right, and always keep in mind that you work for the readers.” — Barry Sussman, editor, Watchdog Project of the Nieman Foundation

Loose lips lead to legal problems

“Refrain from engaging in loose talk about your work. Flippant comments can harm your credibility and lead to legal problems.” — Bill Kunerth, professor emeritus, Iowa State University

Make time on deadline

“Practically speaking, this can mean going for the extra page of coverage when news breaks, not for the next cycle. Or waiting perilously close to deadline to update a story. And, in the end, it all boils down to a smaller-scale corollary: You’d be amazed at the good work you can do in 5 minutes.” — John Woods, copy editor, The New York Times

Never use absolutes

“Never use absolutes (except in issuing this rule, that is), such as: biggest, smallest, first, last, most expensive, etc.” — Rox Laird, editorial writer, Des Moines Register

Our purpose is of the highest order

“Ours is a rough and at times ragged trade, a first swipe at sorting out what it all means. Sometimes that yields incomplete reporting, imbalance and, yes, even error. But if all we do flows from a basic instinct to serve the people’s right and need to know, without fear or favor, our purpose is of the highest order.” — Conrad Fink, former Associated Press vice president and current professor, Morris Chair of Newspaper Strategy and Management, University of Georgia

Paraphrase Jefferson

“If the press is free and all can read, the nation is safe.’ ” — James Crook, Iowa State University alumnus and professor emeritus, University of Tennessee

Question, question, question

“The watchdog principle … imposes the fundamental duty to bark our heads off when we discover that institutions serving society and the people governing it fail to carry out their responsibility.

To that end, every reporter must be an investigative reporter whose duty is to question, question, question. Only through such questioning, which is an investigative activity, can we determine the facts, which lead to truth.” — Stephen Berry, former investigative reporter, Los Angeles Times, journalism professor, University of Iowa

Remember to play fair

“The writer who places primacy on serving the reader and the story isn’t putting his journalism at the service of hidden agendas, ideological biases, unacknowledged vested interests (either personal or institutional). If the writer has strong opinions on a subject, he should share and explain them rather than hide them.” — Donald McLeese, former Chicago Sun Times columnist, journalism professor, University of Iowa

Seek the truth

“Seek the truth even when it isn’t comfortable. That’s when it’s most important.” — Deanna Sands, managing editor, Omaha World-Herald

Take heart

“The lack of courage — fear to offend, to be scared of retaliation — is endemic in those who practice the craft of journalism today. That includes their corporate bosses.” — Ben Blackstock, former director, Oklahoma Press Association

Unify your principles

“Truth is the convergence of accurate, complete and fair reporting and conscientious writing.” — Michaela Saunders, education reporter, Omaha World-Herald

Verify, question, dig

“Verify: Check assertions, Internet findings. Question authority: Status does not confer truthfulness. Dig: ‘Layer One’ journalism betrays the public’s confidence in you, the journalist.” — Melvin Mencher, professor emeritus, Columbia University, and author of “News Reporting and Writing”

Work for the community

“The reason our founders gave us a special franchise was because they recognized the value a free press had in advancing the community. It may be a debate over a zoning issue or a debate over the need for war in Iraq, but a principle that has to guide what we do is whether something we’re doing makes our ‘community’ better. It’s also a good way to sort out some of the junk and trivia we encounter.” — David Yepsen, political columnist, Des Moines Register

X-ray your blind spot

“Try to identify your biases and blind spots and work against them … and report the hell out of your stories.” — Brent Cunningham, managing editor, Columbia Journalism Review

Yield to readers, not shareholders

“Cynical reporters would tell you the pressure is to shareholders, not to readers. More cynical reporters would tell you that’s why there are so few of both.” — Anonymous, reporter, major metropolitan newspaper

Zeal matters

“Journalism is a calling and so must be pursued with passion. Otherwise, you will burn out when your candle burns at both ends.” — Michael Bugeja, former United Press International bureau manager and current director, Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, Iowa State University

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