Important Qualities of a Journalist

Direct Knowlege Contributor Taylor Bauer
  • By Taylor Bauer, Technical Writer & Digital Marketing Expert
  • Taylor is a writer and SEO manager with a B.S. in Political Communication from Illinois State University. He also received his M.S. in Communications from Illinois State. His background comes from journalism, working at an NPR member station for three years before transitioning to blogging and search engine marketing. He lives in Illinois with his wife and two Toy Australian Sheppards.

When you think about your morning routine, I guess that some portion of your day starts with checking the news or social media. Many of the ways we get information take place on social media now, as well as websites of traditional news outlets. Even if we find our news on opinion websites or blogs, it’s vital to our understanding of the world. Across most areas where we find new, a set of qualities of a journalist guide professionals in their efforts.

The qualities of a journalist aim to guide the profession towards its goals of impartiality, honesty, and objective information sharing. The values in this profession changed over time, but quality journalists still uphold these morals. When a journalist has these qualities, the public views them as credible, trustworthy, and informative. Because a democratic society relies on journalism for information, these qualities are essential to support and defend. 

Journalism is a unique and specialized career that might not be for everyone. There are certain qualities needed from a journalist for them to achieve success, not all of which are common or easy. The profession calls for a curious mind and a passion for gaining and sharing knowledge. It is also essential to be willing to escape your comfort zone to collect and share information. Some of the necessary qualities might be inherent parts of a journalist’s personality; others, gained through experience and discipline.

The Impersonal Journalistic Quality of Impartiality

Any journalist should maintain the ability to separate themselves from the various sides of a story. For many forms of journalism, opinions and biases should not impact the story or the audience. This quality allows the viewer to form their views and understanding of the material without experiencing any form of manipulation. It means not only avoiding the inclusion of strongly opinionated statements but also avoiding leaving out important information that does not support the bias. This fact is especially actual when writing material regarding politics, business, and current events.

An exception to this might be if the journalist is an expert in the area at hand. Journalists can write analysis, review, and opinion pieces with which they are more intimately familiar. In these instances, the audience wants the journalist’s subjective view based on their expertise. Some other topics might also allow more leeway when it comes to keeping an unbiased tone, such as arts and entertainment, or even investigative journalism. In investigations, journalists may use bias to fuel their passion for righting a wrong. But any journalist should be able to control their preference depending on the situation, knowing when to allow it to impact their work.

On the Personal Side of Journalistic Qualities: Inquisitiveness

Curiosity and adventure are more than likely a quality that a person is looking into being a journalist already possesses. Inquiring into current happenings and how they affect people in society are the key motivators behind journalism as a whole. Even in the most everyday fields of journalism such as sports and entertainment, journalists and their readers are ultimately curious about the changes happening in spheres beyond their immediate reach. They want to learn new information and possibly apply it to their lives either for enjoyment or for perhaps other aspects like investment strategies or travel destinations.

Journalists use this quality of inquisitiveness to fuel a passion for the truth and sharing the information with others. This quality extends beyond work and into daily life. Outside of work, be sure to read as much as possible, or possibly listen to podcasts, watch educational television, or interact with others who are different than yourself. Whatever you can do to learn more about the world and society.

Empathy as a Key quality for Journalists to Connect with Others

All of this information comes from being interested needs to be put to use most effectively. Although impartial, journalists need not be emotionless. Taking into account the emotional and personal perspectives of people on opposite sides of arguments can help one remain neutral through understanding the amount of compromise necessary to fix the problem. An empathetic point of view means that when learning about differences, we make a concentrated effort to evaluate them from the perspective of others and to understand the reasons and feelings behind their actions or stances. Having empathy allows us to learn about people and places who are different than ourselves without being indifferent or hostile.

In journalism, this quality is what journalists harness to communicate stories between vastly different people. Journalists empathize with one person or group by talking with them or studying the details of their situation. They then determine how best to communicate that situation through words, photos, videos, or other journalistic means. They must also consider the point of view of the audience receiving the information by asking questions that might include: are there aspects of the story that the people of the audience might find offensive? Are there aspects that they may be completely unfamiliar with and need an explanation? Or perhaps, are there aspects they are likely to misunderstand or misconstrue? It is the journalist’s job to think of and address these questions.

Open-Mindedness for Embracing the Large Range of Topics in Journalism

In journalism, the quality of open-mindedness goes hand in hand with both empathy and being unbiased. A journalist might be reporting about very new research, people in very different cultures, or subjects with what they are not familiar with or comfortable. Some of these subjects might make a journalist uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. But journalists can’t recoil from their issues. They need to observe and listen without judgment to communicate the story as it is, rather than through a distorted lens.

The best way to be open-minded is through frequent exposure to new and different cultures and ideas. When exercising that inquisitive quality from above, don’t limit yourself to topics with which you are already comfortable and familiar. Read a book about an item you’ve never researched before. Watch that controversial documentary about the latest social injustice issue. Take a look at works from politicians on the other side of the aisle from you. If you know you’ll be working on a new topic unfamiliar to you, learn about it beforehand in preparation.

Eloquence. A Key Quality of Any Journalist Who Speaks or Writes

Juggling and trying to communicate all of these potentially conflicting perspectives can be tricky. But an eloquent style of writing and speaking is an essential quality of a journalist that helps ensure the message gets across as smoothly and clearly as possible. While being transparent, it should also be captivating and appealing to all audiences. An academic style of writing, for example, is excellent for pure information transfer. But it doesn’t grab and hold the attention of readers, especially that of the average person targeted by most journals. Eloquence adds a poetic flow and emotional connection that helps readers understand, empathize with, and appreciate the details of the story.

It is also the best way to appeal to different perspectives of varying audiences, as opposed to tossing around harsh language that criticizes various aspects. When aiming to convince and attendance, or introduce something new, perceived insults can turn people off of the material. Poor language choice can make an audience defensive and resistant to new ideas. But using eloquently worded language to appeal to their perspective while introducing something new or startling can ease transitions and encourage adaptation. The words we use are essential in many ways, and eloquence is one of the subtler qualities that many people do not possess. However, more than any inherent quality of a person, this is a skill that can develop over time. Thus, practice and experience are essential above all else. Reading and listening to material from seasoned journalists can provide an example of which to build one’s skills.

Flexibility to Manage the Chaos

The schedule and day-to-day happenings of a journalist are not as predictable as those of most professions. Fairly straightforward fields, such as reporting with a news agency, can throw unexpected twists and turns at journalists. Sudden breaking news of critical events can drastically alter plans at any moment. Interactions with members of the public can become awkward, inappropriate, violent, or just plain weird. Whatever problems that might occur, a journalist needs to adapt to the situation at hand quickly.

This fact means thinking on their feet and reacting quickly. It also means making sacrifices to meet the requirements of the job. A regular schedule might not be possible, requiring odd work hours or extensive traveling. Reporters even go to such great lengths as sleeping outside courthouses to catch the first news of essential trials. This process makes the remaining flexible a pivotal quality to becoming a successful and highly competitive journalist.

Patience to Get Where You Want to Go

Patience is a quality of a journalist needed from before the career even starts. You’ll need the patience to learn the ways of journalism, complete school, and get experience through internships and entry-level jobs. And then to do the job. During the job itself, patience helps deal with the uncertainties and unique situations involved in the field.

On the job, a journalist might get information that they can’t act on yet because they would be making assumptions or not have the full story. Or perhaps there is another part of the story needed to give it the most significant impact possible. Therefore, the journalist needs to be able to judge the situation and determine if immediate action is the best course to take. Jumping the gun and making assumptions about sensitive information can mean having lower quality publication material than competitors who wait. It can also mean losing jobs or even lead to criminal charges. Sometimes it’s better to wait.

Resourcefulness to Stay Ahead of Other Journalists

The path for any given assignment in journalism won’t always be straightforward. Especially as a journalist progresses higher up the ladder, more and more will expect of them on an independent basis. For instance, more in-depth articles use their style and creativity, as well as their knowledge. But frequently, your experience won’t be enough. Optimally, opinions should back up with facts from other independent third-party sources. And events should be backed up with even more points and sources. Journalists will need to do substantial research on their own, talk with their private sources, and build strong relationships that provide them with valuable material.

Especially in fields such as investigative journalism, the journalist needs to be creative in using all resources available to them to figure out how best to proceed. This process could mean digging through old records, talking to obscure characters, and traveling from place to place in search of leads. Some leads may be just small bread crumbs that eventually lead to a vast trove of information if followed to the end. Other points might be entirely dead ends. As a result, perseverance in the face of these obstacles means using every tool available and maintaining the determination to keep going.

Confidentiality to Maintain Trust and Reliability Across the Aisle

Journalists can deal with sensitive information. Therefore, they entrust with the job of taking appropriate action to get the information to the public without causing any damages or problems. With all news stories, it is essential to keep the information confidential until all members involved agree to share it. Fact-checking needs to take place, responses to potential media questions prepared, permissions granted for specific information, and more.

For example, people involved in daily reports must agree to have their quotes or footage included. Additionally, essential documents might leak to journalists from high-level government or corporate sources. Journalists must maintain the quality of security and confidentiality to handle this type of whistleblowing information with care. They need to make sure to protect the whistleblower and consider all possible ramifications of releasing the information. Overall, each piece of information has individual requirements in terms of necessary treatment and care. Always think carefully before acting.

Humility When It’s Needed

In any profession, remaining humble is outstanding quality. But in journalism, in particular, it is a quality often in the spotlight, where the public can and does judge it. If a journalist misreports something or in poor taste, the public reaction will often depend on how they make amends. For instance, if the journalist is humble and accepts responsibility for the mistake and apologizes, public backlash is often assuaged. But doubling down on the error will only worsen the public reaction.

Even when it comes to things that aren’t necessarily mistakes, there is always room for improvement. Evaluating one’s work and any constructive criticism from others is vital for elevating a journalist to the next level—particularly the advice of more experienced journalists, but also that of the audience. Most journals and media sources online actually have methods for readers to comment and communicate with other readers as well as the author. Use this feedback to tailor content to the desires of the audience.

Final Notes on Qualities of a Journalist

Ultimately, not every journalist is the same. Above all, you should identify your most valuable strengths and improve those, and follow that by identifying and developing weaknesses that might prevent reaching your future goals. But different journalists possessing different qualities is part of what makes each of them a uniquely valuable contribution to the field. Having variety keeps everything not only checked and balanced but also exciting. However, the above qualities are sure to come in handy for any good journalist, if not be critical. It could easily take years to perfect them, but the benefits will lift a journalism career to new heights.

Conclusion

Finding ways to summarize the entirety of professionals within a field can be challenging. There are several outliers and exceptions to the rules. Still, the majority of journalists follow these guidelines to serve as public representatives for the truth. Several things changed over time in journalism, and technology today continues to change things. Still, these qualities ring true throughout the history of the profession.

Where do you see journalism heading as the internet overtakes radio and TV?

Why do you think journalism is vital to your daily life and society?

When do we rely on journalism most? What circumstances call on us to utilize journalism?

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