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If you are even bothering to read this, it must be because you have said more than once, "I could do that!" You're relatively young, and have the looks, speaking ability and self-assurance to report in television news.



Okay, you're hardly camera-friendly, but praise of your writing makes you dream of bylines in print journalism. But, rather than scampering for quotes and badgering sources, you'd rather edit the work of others behind the scenes.
Picturing yourself this way is a good start. Many a news media professional never worked on their high school and college newspapers, or majored in journalism as an undergraduate. They entered the field in too many different ways to classify, some by pure happenstance.

In my case, I wrote humor columns for my high school newspaper and for my Army base magazine, and had majored in journalism (at Colorado University, Boulder) before landing my first job with UPI wire service. The element of serendipity arrived when, after I had attempted for years to become a specialist reporter in sports or science, the only job available when I applied at the Los Angeles Times was as a religion writer. I had no background in the field, but on-the-job learning worked, and served me well for 30+ years at that daily newspaper.

For many years at the Times, my colleague was Russ Chandler, who had a seminary degree and served a few years as a Presbyterian pastor. But he soon decided he really wanted to be a journalist. After some short-term training, he got lucky, worked hard and became very good at it.

Indeed, determination, luck or connections are the keys to acquiring positions in any field. But I would recommend taking some courses in journalism to learn the ethos of news gathering and reporting, as well as learning the lingo, technical aspects — and seeing whether you can catch the esprit de corps to sustain you in the transition years.

Being fair, accurate, precise, clear and economical with words are widely held tenets of straight news reporting. Being first with a great story nearly always takes priority when that is possible. Reporters and editors in responsible news organizations at times have to hold off publishing or broadcasting the story if it still has unconfirmed key elements and other significant "holes," or lacunae, if you will. Yet, that delay may be only a day, or even hours, if a reasonable assembly of facts, quotes and context can be achieved to serve the reader on the so-called breaking news.

Graduate students and scholars are no strangers to deadlines. But are you able to put aside the academic standards of completeness for a different sense of that level in journalism? News professionals seek to "touch all the bases" in major articles and commentaries. But stories with immediacy can only be as "complete" as time and available information allow. The news consumer recognizes that more will be learned hours, days or months later if the event is important enough to merit sustained coverage.

Many judgments involve not doing stories that some special interests and public relations people think are wonderful. And some developments are simply "old news." Editors do not want to run yet another story on a well-explored subject unless something happens to change the picture in unexpected ways, whether they be pleasing or troubling. Journalists in most jobs have to drop their strong feelings that (fill in the blank) is the most crucial problem facing humanity today, and must be reported upon even when the public shows no interest or nothing significantly different has happened. In other words, you have "let go" to a great extent your favorite topics or partisan interests. Instead, those matters that have gained new curiosity or concern may be judged by your editors to take precedence.

The joy of journalism may be comparable to that of teachers in that both have vital "messenger" roles. Teachers bringing information and insights to students find an even larger classroom through the news media. The more respected the news outlet is, the greater likelihood that you can have substantial impact. Don't take my word for it. See why some working journalists love their craft at the web site of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). http://www.asne.org/index.cfm?id=4847

Teachers-turned-journalists know that clever, inviting choices of examples and anecdotes spark interest. Both teachers and journalists realize they are effective if they speak/write in clear language, not letting unfamiliar terms go unexplained. Both professionals also should know they must answer the "so what" of the topic at hand. Otherwise, students and media consumers alike will ask, "Why should I bother listening/reading?"

Most journalists are not columnists, so trying to be fair is a key skill, often by attributing facts and opinions to a balanced choice of sources as well as assembling enough context to enhance understanding. Reporters should show a passion for telling the story while paradoxically keeping the subject at arm's length by citing differing, yet well-put, interpretations. Ideally, the reader or listener should sense the excitement you have through the care that you took to get the story right, but it is best if it remains a mystery as to how you yourself feel about the subject. If you can win at least grudging respect from partisans on the left and right in today's polarizing climate, you have done your job well.

The ASNE site also has some practical tips on where to start. But for a programs to help minorities to switch careers, see this one at Vanderbilt:

http://www.freedomforum.org/templates/document.asp?documentID=12802



Try also at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism:

http://www.jrn.columbia.edu/admissions/programs/part-time/

Even as you investigate short-term study opportunities, start working on assembling examples of your writing most akin to a journalistic style, and inquire whether a publication or broadcast outlet you admire is in the market for free-lance work. You are going to need samples of your writing or reporting to show prospective employers. That will carry more weight than academic degrees.

If you are thinking about religion reporting, be aware of distinction between the "secular press" and "religious press." The latter are those outlets with ties to denominations or other religious organizations. As for specialists in the secular media, look at the Religion Newswriters Association (http://www.religionwriters.com ), which is holding its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., September 9-12. One should become familiar with this important group. You can also download my primer for journalists new to the religion beat http://www.fac.org/about.aspx?id=6266

A scholar versed in biblical studies, one who also can translate that knowledge into news vernacular, would have some opportunities for good stories that many in the religion-writing corps pass up for a variety of reasons. See my blog. http://64.70.204.33/blogs/archives/dart/2004_03_01_dart.html

Yet, most prospective employers tend to be most interested in news people with a wide range of interests and knowledge. Some journalists may have religion news as only one part of their duties. There are more generalists than specialists in any given newsroom. Indeed, I emphasized in this article the desire one has for acquiring basic journalistic skills because those are the tools that a professional will call upon daily, even when working on a story in which you have special expertise.

John Dart, news editor at Christian Century, is one of three first-place winners in the 2004 AAR contest for in-depth reporting.

Citation: John Dart, " Teacher to Journalist? Here's the Scoop," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=298

 
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