The Five Hardest Things About Journalism: No. 4

By Andrew Gibson

This is the second post in a series about what I think are the five most difficult parts of journalism. My opinions are based on one year at Mizzou in Columbia, Mo., and an internship this summer at KCNC-TV in Denver.

Starbucks Via was a good friend of mine last semester.

This was especially true when my News (Journalism 2100) instructor,Karon Speckman, assigned everyone in my class to cover a Columbia, Mo., City Council meeting.

It started at 7 p.m., so I figured I’d be done two hours later. That would leave me plenty of time to get a quote from someone in the audience, write a 400-word story and check my grammar before midnight, I thought.

Instead, I walked out of the meeting, which was still going on, around midnight with rings around my eyes, an audio recorder with maxed-out memory and a notebook with smeared, illegible notes.

“Welcome to the world of public meetings,” Speckman said in class the next day.

And welcome to reality, Andrew, because you want to be a political reporter someday.

But back to the coffee. The most important part of this anecdote is that I stayed up until 5 a.m. writing the story. I promise I’m not bragging or flexing my academic muscles when I say this.

Rather, I stayed up until 5 a.m. because I had a deadline. And that cruel, yet irresistible, word is No. 4 on my countdown.

It wasn’t the kind of deadline that the students already in their journalism-school emphasis areas face. All I had to do was turn it in the next day. Yes, experienced reporters, it’s OK to laugh.

But even if I wasn’t writing for the Missourian or Newsy, where many Mizzou J-schoolers already in their emphasis areas work, it was one of the first strict deadlines I’d ever faced.

And Speckman, a Missouri School of Journalism adjunct associate professor, didn’t allow a grace period. I’m thankful for that.

In addition to collecting assignments at the beginning of class, she gave us deadline writings almost every Friday. The facts were spelled out most of the time — all we had to do was write the story — but 30 minutes meant 30 minutes. Speckman would start walking out of the room when the big hand hit 3:30 p.m.

I always enjoyed watching the panic in the room during the last five minutes. But I also can’t forget that I was usually one of the people desperately trying to make sure my lead was 21 words or fewer before Speckman left.

Admittedly, my slowness scares me. Sometimes I take an hour to write just a few grafs, and I know that’s far from realistic. Deadlines are a challenge.

Rather, deadlines are the challenge. I’m no expert, but when journalists are in doubt about something, I know the rule is that they should always do more reporting.

What often prevents that from happening? The D-word.

NPR, Fox News, CNN and Reuters incorrectly reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., died in January after a gunman shot her, according to Regret the Error. Maybe these sources wouldn’t have made that mistake if they had more time to do original reporting.

Deadlines are pervasive.

New York Times media and TV reporter Brian Stelter went so far as to name his blog after them. He’s a seasoned pro, but one who is no doubt still tied to the numbers on his watch (or iPhone, for that matter).

It’s true that almost every profession involves some kind of deadline, and I don’t at all mean to downplay other jobs. But it’s impossible to reschedule the news. U.S. soldiers didn’t choose a media-convenient time to kill Osama bin Laden. Reporters had to be ready, no matter the time.

In the industry of news, missing a deadline means failure.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Although intimidating, deadlines are great motivators.

The purpose of my Cross-Cultural Journalism class (Journalism 2000) was to learn how to cover the uncovered, understand stereotypes and clear unfair assumptions. The question was raised how journalists can do all of these things when they have so little time to work.

Answer: You have to report fairly, quickly. Time is no excuse.

That discussion stuck with me. Chances are I’ll start off as a same-day reporter somewhere after I graduate from MU, meaning I’ll need to be able to address the intricacies of an issue in a matter of hours.

Deadlines will be my friendly adversary. They’ll taunt me and say, “You can’t dig that deep by 5 o’clock.” And I’ll work to prove them wrong.

Think about this: Would Woodward and Bernstein have reported so thoroughly on Watergate if they weren’t worried that other newspapers would uncover the story before they did?

I doubt it.

I’ve sentenced myself to a life of editors and producers yelling at me to finish my story. And I couldn’t be happier.

Check back tomorrow for No. 3 in my countdown.

Did you miss No. 5? Click the link!

This post is cross posted from Andrew Gibson’s personal blog.

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