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Journalism 101: The Journalist’s DNA

December 4, 2009


What journalistic values did Rory Cellan-Jones have to bear in mind when he wrote a blog analysing Google’s move to implement restricted access to news stories earlier this week?

TV and radio journalists recommend planning a news package or documentary. Where budgets are involved and teams of people required, so schedules, shape, story arcs and goals are vital to delivering the end product in time for broadcast. How can you tell a story if you don’t know where you’re going?

That’s what they say. But surely planning out the question and answer so rigorously beforehand removes some of the joy from the process? Doesn’t that make the process of interviewing something of a cold and lifeless affair?

I’d tested out my “killer” question on a handful of other journalists before I met up with Rory, this in part because I wanted things to be watertight before I entered the Business and Economics Unit in Television Centre.   

But having tested it out, I realised I knew the answer already about the difficulties facing a BBC journalist when writing a blog entry about an online competitor.

Merely asking the question around other journalists made the answer obvious: A BBC journalist has to maintain impartiality. That’s the obvious difficulty when writing about online competitors. And it’s obvious not only because it’s one of those ingrained BBC values. It’s also one of the major sections of the College of Journalism website.

Still, as hoped, Mr Cellan-Jones did present his tasty soundbite in an interesting way. “It’s in the DNA,” he says in the video interview.

I responded with, “So it’s just experience then?” although at the time I was wondering where I might find a shortcut to acquiring that DNA.

Impartiality feels like a scary value, one open to interpretation and demanding vigorous debate from time to time. It feels like a value with no hard and fast or right and wrong answer. Surely there’s the equivalent to an operating system patch available somewhere, isn’t there?

There maybe an easier route. Personal values must surely offer a firm foundation for understanding impartiality, or at the very least a good place to start. Begin with common sense and bolt the more complex stuff on top of that. That was certainly one way of looking at it when debating whether or not to include the critical feedback I solicited from Rory after the interview was over.

That and getting at least four pairs of eyes to look over it too.

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