Image Credit: Louis M. Glackens, “The Yellow Press” (Puck, Oct. 12, 1910; Library of Congress)
By Jason Zweig | July 25, 2019 9:56 pm ET
Twice in the past few weeks, people have asked me what it takes to be a good journalist.
After a little introspection and lots of thought about my colleagues at The Wall Street Journal, I gave the pithiest answer I could:
Not much — and a lot.
Like many people, I became a journalist because I loved to write and couldn’t find another way of working with words that would put (a little) food on the table.
But I no longer think the love of writing is a prerequisite for being a good journalist or even for being a journalist at all.
After more than 30 years at Forbes, Time Inc., and The Wall Street Journal, I think my little list below is the full toolkit of essential traits. Other attributes matter — loving the language doesn’t hurt, and a sense of humor will come in handy — but they are secondary. I think you need all six of these qualities to succeed in journalism. Some, like curiosity, may be inborn; most you can probably learn. No matter how journalism struggles or evolves in the years to come, I think each of these will remain a sine qua non for success:
Curiosity. Good journalists go through life with a big “WTF” bubble over their heads. When things make sense, journalists want to know how they work and what the secret of their success (so far) is. When things don’t make sense, as they so often don’t, we want to know more. I often say that nothing surprises me, but many things puzzle me and everything intrigues me. For reporters, “beginner’s mind” isn’t a habit; it’s how our senses work. As we read and look and listen, we find much of the world strange and hard to explain.
A large percentage of what other people take for granted or don’t even notice seems odd, seems off, to us: How could anyone believe that? Why did he do that? Who would ever say that? Can that work? Are you kidding me?
Skepticism. Ronald Reagan’s “Trust but verify” may be a good dictum for diplomacy, but it isn’t for journalism. We don’t trust people we haven’t already verified, and we’re not always even sure about the ones we have. We’ve been fooled and lied to too many times.
You can’t evaluate the quality of the evidence unless you are skeptical about the origins and thoroughness of the data as well as the motives of the people who collected and analyzed and presented it. I often say, “No matter how cynical you are, you aren’t cynical enough,” and while that might be a dark way to live your personal life, it’s a pretty accurate professional view of the business world I cover.
So far as I can recall, I’ve never made a mistake as a reporter that didn’t come from not being skeptical enough.
Persistence. When it’s your job to find out what powerful people don’t want the world to know, you become monomaniacal in pursuing the evidence. You download every disclosure document. You read all the footnotes. You call every person who might know something, and you call them again and again and again until they talk to you. If that’s dozens of people, it’s dozens. If that’s hundreds, it’s hundreds. If you’re polite as you persist, you can penetrate nearly every cone of silence and barrier of resistance. It might take weeks; it might take months; sometimes it can even take years. But a good story in the crosshairs of a stubborn reporter is like the white whale in the spyglass of Ahab: We will follow it wherever it goes, no matter how long the pursuit or what it takes.
Attention to detail. From the relentless chase after valid evidence comes an obsession with getting it right. You can do honor to the difficulty of your own work only by striving to get every detail as accurate as you humanly can. People who aren’t journalists often think reporters should be “objective.” Most reporters don’t use that word, because we’re too cynical to think any human can be objective. What we do strive to be is fair. And fairness should flow organically from the effort to be thorough and precise. Journalists make mistakes all the time — I think of myself as a font of error, every splash of which leaves me stained — but that’s largely because rendering every detail with accuracy and fairness is extraordinarily difficult.
When we make mistakes, it’s not for the lack of effort to avoid them. We make mistakes not because we are careless or lazy, but because the world is complex and every event is affected by more factors than any one version of reality can account for. When you have approximately 3 million readers, as The Wall Street Journal does, making a factual error and then having to publish a correction is humiliating. Have you ever had a nightmare about being buck naked in front of millions of people who are pointing at you and howling with laughter? Then you have a rough sense of what it feels like to be a reporter who got the facts wrong. All this makes journalists paranoid about getting it right.
Responsibility. Every article, report, or post worth its salt is an attempt to get people to change their minds about something. Even though people rarely change their minds about anything, you can’t attempt to get them to do so unless you search your own soul for any signs that you aren’t being fair, that you don’t believe all of what you’re saying, or that you don’t care enough or haven’t learned about the topic to justify your position.
The tenth circle of Hell is reserved for journalists who — knowingly or subconsciously — renounce responsibility for their own work.
A thick skin. To the extent that being a journalist means earning your living by criticizing other people, how can you not expect to be criticized in return? Unearthing details that have been buried in silence, evaluating the quality of the evidence, following the facts where they lead, forthrightly describing what you’ve found: Doing all that will piss off powerful people, and they will lash out at you for exposing what they wanted to remain hidden. They will threaten and bully you. They will insult your character and integrity. You will respond by ignoring every personal attack and by letting the evidence in your coverage speak for itself.
If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t try to dish it out.
Have I forgotten anything? I don’t think so, but let me know if you think I did.
For further reading:
Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor
Jason Zweig, The Devil’s Financial Dictionary
Jason Zweig, Your Money and Your Brain
Jason Zweig, The Little Book of Safe Money
Articles and other research: