Anyone can be a journalist, but as it is in any industry, there are those who make the field look good, and those who drag the public perception of journalists down. Here is a list of 10 essential characteristics shared by the former—successful, or at least respectable—journalists.
- Honest: Few things rival honesty as the primary characteristic of a respectable journalist. Your readers and viewers must trust you, and dishonesty is the surest way to violate that trust.
Tireless: Luck seldom replaces tenacity. If you know there's a story to be had, tracking down the right sources (not just the convenient ones), convincing them to speak to you, crosschecking information, and spending hours researching are critical—and exhausting. The successful journalist embraces caffeine and soldiers on until the job is done, because quitting half way or half-assing the legwork translates directly into an inferior or inaccurate story.
Bold: Fortune favors those who take risks, ask uncomfortable questions, and get down and dirty when the job demands it.
Courteous: If you want people to speak to you about a sensitive subject, a little courtesy—a "please" or "I'd really appreciate it"—goes miles to easing their reticence.
Compassionate: You won't spend your career writing only fun, lighthearted pieces. Hard news is hard because it often involves pain or loss. A reporter who understands the human element and sympathizes with their subject or source will not only produce a story that resonates with readers, but will be able to rest easy at night knowing they didn't hurt anyone for the sake of that story.
Humble, yet proud: Recognizing that you're only one voice in a world filled with would-be journalists will keep your ego in check. That's not to say you shouldn't be proud to see your name in each article's byline, but recognize that your name is inextricably linked to every word in that article—even if those words end up being untrue or misleading.
Curious: The world is vast and beautiful, filled with more information than we could possibly absorb in multiple lifetimes. Maintaining a hunger for information and a healthy curiosity for all things around us helps to make us the best journalists we can be, and keeps us in the game longer.
Creative: The most memorable stories are those told in a fresh, creative fashion. The successful journo doesn't just recite what happened, they craft the story and wield their words like the tools of an artisan. Most readers and viewers know what to expect in the average story; make them blink and lean forward in their seats.
Shrewd: Even if you're honest, you must recognize that others are not. You will encounter sources that lie, bend the truth, or misremember. Maintaining a high level of skepticism doesn't make you a pessimist, it makes you a realist, and a better reporter. As President Reagan once said, "Trust, but verify."
Jack of all trades, master of none: Perhaps a byproduct of writing about an endless, perpetually changing stream of subject matter, accomplished journalists often possess a wide, if shallow, breadth of knowledge. That's okay; while you may not be writing academic papers, you'll always be equipped to have a conversation with anyone, strangers included, on just about any topic.