Seven Rules of Quality Journalism

Journalism is in crisis, which is why it’s never been more important to ensure quality. Here are seven rules you should live and die by as a journalist.

Credits: Bywire News (Canva)
Credits: Bywire News (Canva)
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According to several studies, the public have false impressions of just about everything. From the scale of immigration, to spending on welfare and the current debate over trans rights, people are forming opinions on inaccurate assumptions. That doesn’t say much for the standard of journalism in this country. 

As a journalist you have a responsibility to maintain high quality reporting which respects the facts and ensures your audience has all the right information at their disposal to make informed decisions. 

1. Be interesting 

As a journalist you can only make an impact if people read your stuff. In the digital age that’s becoming harder than ever. People take, on average, a couple of seconds before deciding whether to stay on an article so your writing has to be clear, and compelling. Whatever the subject it must grab them with the first couple of lines. 

Let them know the key ingredient of your story as soon as you they set eyes on your article.  

2. Be humane

The death of Caroline Flack should have been a wake-up call for the press. The presenter had long struggled with mental health issues. The police investigation into allegations of assault were accompanied by a very public trial by media. 

She is just one of countless victims of press harassment. When writing a story, it’s easy to get carried away by the hunt for the scoop and forget that somewhere at the heart of this story is a human being. From Princess Diana to Caroline Flack the press often dehumanises its targets. 

3. Be accurate

Journalists should always stay true to the facts. When matters are in dispute, they should present information as fairly and truthfully as possible. Check and verify everything. Even if information comes from a source you know and like you should double check anything you’re told. 

As an old saying goes ‘if your mother tells you she loves you’ check it out. In the search to be the first to a scoop too many journalists forget to do the basics and make sure stories can be verified. People don’t remember those who were first but they do remember those who were wrong. If you print a story which turns out to be misleading, your readers will find it difficult to trust you again. 

4. Be transparent 

The ‘unnamed source’ is a particular common feature of modern journalism. For a great example check out Laura Kuenssberg’s story about Boris Johnson’s reaction to the pandemic. The piece is littered with unattributed sources and unnamed Cabinet ministers. 

Such stories are dangerous because we have no way of validating anything they say. We don’t know who is behind the quote or their motivations for making it or how credible a source they are. 

If you’re unable to verify a piece of information, say so. Be transparent about the strengths and weaknesses of the source material you’re drawing on. This allows your readers to come to their own judgement about your arguments. It’s much more difficult to dismiss an article as ‘biased’ if the writer has been transparent about the process by which he or she reached a certain conclusion.

5. Be Objective 

This is one point at which just about every journalist fails. What matters is the extent to which you fail at it. If you’re writing about a topic you’re passionate about the chances are you will bring some strong opinions to the table. This will almost certainly show through in your work. 

It might be subtle in the phrasing of text or the type of questions you ask; or it might be more overt, such as the newspapers actively telling people who to vote for. A good journalist does his or her best to be objective. That means presenting information clearly for the readers to make up their own minds, asking tough questions of those you admire and being fair to those you do not. Unfortunately, examples of good objective journalism are hard to find. Perhaps the closest comes from Peter Oborne’s coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Despite never claiming to share his political beliefs, Oborne is of the few journalists to cover the former leader in a balanced way. 

6. Accountability 

None of us are perfect. You will make mistakes. What matters is how you respond. Good journalists hold themselves to account as much as everyone else. If you make a mistake you should admit it and correct the record.

You should listen to what readers say and if their concerns are fair make amends. Corrections should be sincere rather than forced. 

7. Focus on facts 

Balance is the mantra of many journalists, but this can lead you down a blind alley. Every story may have several sides, but that doesn’t mean they should all be given equal weight. For example, the overwhelming body of scientific evidence states that climate change is an urgent crisis and made by man. 

However, news outlets often seek to balance dissenting opinions. This often means giving charlatans and climate deniers an equal platform as scientists, economists, and other experts. The search for balance is admirable but  can end up distorting the truth.


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