Guest Blogging: 10 Things J-Students Need To Know, But J-Schools Won’t Tell You

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, we are fortunate to have Kelli Bloomquist, a part-time lecturer at Iowa State University’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication. She also owns the Dayton Review newspaper which has served the rural farming community of Dayton, Iowa for nearly 140 years. Her post today lays out the 10 things journalism students need to know but that they don’t learn in journalism school. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.


You Aren’t A Lawyer, But You Play One In The Newsroom

That media law class that’s a graduation requirement at your university is actually more important than you think. While every j-school class is important, media law is one class that you should show up to, stay awake for, and soak in and retain the information from because you will absolutely need to know every single nugget of knowledge taught in this class.

Journalists need to know media law like it’s your job, because it is! Never before in the history of journalism have professional journalists been questioned and denied access as we are today.

The First Amendment, Freedom of Information Act, open meetings laws, state recording laws, these are all necessary knowledge bases that every journalist must know front to back and back and forth.

I have been a working journalist, editor, a current newspaper owner, and also a university lecturer for more than 20 years. I have written my fair share FOIA requests, sat in on hundreds of city council and school board stories, and know Robert’s Rules of Order like the back of my hand. That’s my job.

Every student entering the workforce should know how to write a FOIA request. You will write dozens of these throughout your career depending on the beat that you’re assigned. Your professor should have you write one during media law class. If they don’t, ask them why.

I have been a guest lecturer in many university journalism classes in recent years and I’m always baffled at the number of students who don’t know their state’s recording laws. Iowa, for instance, is a one-knowledge state which means that a journalist doesn’t necessarily have to tell a source that they’re recording the conversation, though it is typically the best option to do so. These are all items that are covered in media law classrooms as are court proceedings, access at the scene, and even legalities surrounding citizen journalism.  The concepts and tools taught in this class will be used daily throughout your career. I’m completely serious about that last sentence, and it’s not the university instructor in me saying that, it’s the 20-plus year veteran journalist saying it.

My very first dip in the legal pool was at the age of 17 when my radio news editor sent me to the local diner to see if our school board was meeting in quorum outside of regular business meetings. There I was, a 17 year old high school radio news intern, surrounded by diners my grandparents’ age who were ordering their daily usual. I tried to inconspicuously order toast and coffee while also keeping an eye out for a possible illegal meeting.

Sure enough, halfway through my toast, a quorum of school board members sat down near me and began discussing how they would vote at that night’s meeting. Bingo. An illegal meeting just took place. I took the information back to my editor and he – along with the local newspaper editor – made the call to the state and to the local superintendent that they were aware of the illegal meetings taking place. Ultimately, the school board members received additional training and were told not to make the mistake again, but the message was clear – the business of the public school system needed to legally happen with transparency before the eyes and ears of its constituents.

Small potatoes? Perhaps. But it set a precedent in the town that is still followed decades later. Know the law because you will have to put it to use daily during your career.

Pay attention when it comes to legal specifics when you’re out in the public working on a story. Where can you legally stand when covering a house fire? What are you legally allowed to print and copy when you visit law enforcement agencies for daily reports? What is the best response when you’re denied access? Remember that response and repeat it often. You’ll need to know it.

Early in my radio news career I was covering a local house fire. I knew all of the police and firefighters on scene and was making small talk with a few of them while standing in the parkway near the road. The homeowner suddenly appeared and was livid that their home (and weed grow lab, I might add) was going up in flames. They screamed and yelled at me to leave what they believed was their property when in actuality, I was standing on a city-owned parkway.

Items like this might seem small and boring at the time, but these are the items I have continually had students come back to me and say “I’m so glad you covered that in class! I actually had to use it today!”


Be Prepared To See The Best And The Worst Of Humanity

You will see humanity at its absolute best, and you will still be required to report on it at its worst. The role of journalism has many facets which also includes documenting history. As a journalist, you will cover murder trials, child abuse cases, shootings, flooding, tornadoes, and other natural disasters, and before your eyes, you will be required to step back and in the moment put your own emotion aside and report and photograph people at their best and at their worst with an unbiased and solely factual approach. It will change you and how you view the world outside of your newsroom. Quite honestly, there’s no way that it can’t. One of the hardest lessons that I had to learn personally was to go to a scene, do my job, and not become emotional while still at the scene of that incident. Journalists are human and we have the very same emotional responses that every other human being does. But showing that emotion at the scene can be viewed to some as bias, so learn to go to the scene, do your job, get in your car, take a deep breath while buckling your seat belt, and drive blocks away before parking your car and letting that emotion out. Even journalists need a good cry.

The very first court case that I covered early in my career is one that is sadly well known in my home state of Iowa. A mother and her boyfriend were found guilty of beating and killing their toddler aged daughter and blamed her death on younger baby brother who allegedly – they claimed – had pushed her off of a couch, killing her. Decades later, I don’t remember reporting on opening arguments, closing arguments, or witness testimony, but I can recall the uncomfortable wooden chair that I sat in while the state’s lawyers showed billboard sized autopsy photos of a toddler girl, her bloodied and bruised body, and listened as medical experts detailed how every single bruise and laceration allegedly took place. I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t not listen to what was being said. It was my job to report on that day’s testimony, to write down specific details that were said, and then write my story, edit audio, and record my story for that day’s multiple newscasts. I remember after the trial walking into the office of my editor and saying “I’m done! I can’t go through a lifetime of child murder trials.” He sat me down and told me that my response was normal, human, and that I needed to learn self care.

As a student, now is that perfect time for you to also learn the methods that work to calm you, to relieve stress, and to see joy again in the world. Perhaps it’s running, being with friends, maybe even a crafting class or a massage, but now is your opportunity as a college student to discover these self care tactics. Try new activities as you will need to institute them at some point in your early journalism career. For me, I bought a gym membership and began running and cycling, especially after particularly difficult days. I ran (albeit on a treadmill) away my frustrations, my anger, and even my joys. Now as a parent of six, university lecturer and newspaper owner, I’ve started running again and seen my stress levels greatly reduce. Try things now when you have the opportunity to find what you like and don’t like.


Be Prepared For Criticism

Don’t like the grade that you received on that last exam or ticked off at the email that your professor sent when they couldn’t meet with you during an opening in your personal schedule? Well just wait until you hit the real, working world! As a student, you need to learn how to accept and move forward with criticism. Sure, the easiest route would be to lose your temper, yell, be sarcastic, or even to take to social media to call out those that you’re angry about, but in a job situation, doing any of the above will have you packing up your desk and on the job hunt before the next edition of your newspaper even publishes.
People want you to report the news, but only when it fits their personal and political agenda. People will get mad at you for reporting what takes place in the world. This isn’t a new concept and is one that shouldn’t affect the way that news is reported, but as a student, you should be well aware of the fact that people will email you, tweet you, and call your desk to tell you how wrong you were in a story just because they didn’t agree with it. The age of social and digital media has made this more common as readers and viewers have more opportunities to seek out like-minded media instead of seeking out unbiased media outlets.

So how will you respond? Learn now while you have the time and the opportunity to accept criticsm without boiling over. Learn what your triggers are and how you can take a step back. As soon as you become aware, it will be easier for you to recognize and de-escalate when you do receive that screaming phone call from a mother who is angry that her kid’s picture didn’t make the sports page.


Create Relationships!

The act of cultivating and keeping news sources Involves creating relationships! Social media is an excellent way to do this. Create professional social media accounts now and post to them often. Follow professionals in radio, print, and tv journalism and public relations specialists and interact with them. Utilize your professional accounts to create relationships with those in the field that you wish to join after graduation. I should add that these accounts absolutely, and for all of eternity, must be professional in every way, from the content that is written, the photos that are posted, and even the handle that you choose. Years ago, I had a student who tried to explain to me at a Twitter handle of @ILoveVodka was completely understandable and legitimate for a television reporter to use while building a portfolio. Yet this very same student couldn’t understand why they weren’t getting interviews for jobs they had applied for. Keep it professional and relevant. Show us a rare photo of your goldfish or of your friends and parents but keep the alcohol, sex, curse words, etc. out of the purview of photos and postings.
Order some business cards. There are plenty of online retailers that sell business cards within a college student’s budget. Order them and then put them to use. Pound the pavement. Being a journalist means you actually have to meet people outside of social media and outside of the email world. It means that you’re actually going to have to leave your dorm room, your classroom, and your desk in order to have face-to-face conversations with people.


Be Confident In Your Writing

Please raise your right hand while reading this. Repeat after me. “I will never ever lie in order to get or report a story.” You have now officially taken the oath of journalism legitimacy. Now make sure you stick to it for all of eternity.
If you aren’t happy with your writing, don’t turn it in. Take what you have and ask your editor or a seasoned journalist to take a look and give you feedback. As a seasoned journalist, I relish in the opportunity to speak with new journalists and help them to polish their stories and photos. All seasoned and award-winning journalists were once newbies too. Most of us had someone who took us under their wing and helped us. There is nothing wrong with asking for help, in fact, it is looked kindly upon.

Don’t let your sources read your story before you publish it. As a college media adviser, I was floored at the number of students that were told they would only be given an interview if the source was allowed to proofread and approve the story ahead of time. I can only equate this to me – a journalism professor – proofing students’ math homework, and quite honestly, math has never been my forte, but I suppose when assessing their homework I could just wing it. It would be the same for a math teacher to proof a student’s journalism story. If you allow a source to proof a story ahead of publication, you’re undermining yourself and the journalism industry. What’s to say that that very source won’t say “well, I didn’t really like the way I said that so you need to change it” or “no, I don’t want this published at all” even after the interview has been given or for the person proofing it to not be a trained journalists who understands how and why our industry functions as it does. As a journalist, you will have an editor or a superior of some sort. Blame your editor or your publisher. We’ve been through the ringer and are more than happy to take these phone calls and explain why it’s our job to be the proofreader, not your source. We will be your scape goat. It’s our job.


This Isn’t The Daily Planet

Listen, you aren’t Clark Kent. I’m not Perry White. Lois Lane only exists in comic books and television shows. Journalism isn’t sexy and it doesn’t happen like Hollywood depicts it. If that’s your expectation, then you need to dive in head first into an internship or join campus media organizations to see how this field works and what being a journalist really means. You’ll spend more time in school board meetings and copying arrest reports at the cop shop than you will in secret undercover investigative stings.


Tell The Truth. Never Lie.

Truth is one of your most valued assets as a person and as a journalist. When you allow that to be compromised for the sake of a story or for power, you’re putting yourself and the journalism industry as a whole at risk. As a journalism student, you’re walking into a world where our field is constantly criticized, even by our own president, as being #Fake News.  But you’re also the generation that has the power and the understanding to change that. A single lie to gain a story puts all of that at risk. Tell the truth. Always. See item number five above. Remember, you took the pledge.


You Aren’t The Story

There is no “I” in journalism. Well, actually there is. But when you begin to insert yourself into the story – both literally and figuratively – you’ve crossed the line of journalism. No where in a story should it be read “when I interviewed Sally, she said…” No. Stop. Rewrite. We already know that you interviewed Sally because you’re the author of this article. Also – and most importantly – you should never show up to cover a story and suddenly the story is about you and not the event or person that you originally came to cover. You should never show up to cover a city council meeting and then speak from the floor or offer your opinion. You should never go on assignment to cover a protest and then later be arrested for joining that very same protest. You should always be able to see yourself as a fly on the wall at these events, covering what is said and done and report it with an unbiased perspective. When you become the story, step away and find your editor immediately.


You Will Have To Talk To People

The news doesn’t happen at your desk, it’s just written there. You will have to leave the cozy newsroom and step out into the world. There’s just no way around that.

I’m a high functioning introvert. Throughout my career, I’ve had to learn how to fake it ‘til you make it when it comes to getting out in the public. It’s outside my comfort zone. I’m a small town newspaper owner. My office is quite literally me and two rescue cats. I prefer it that way after a couple decades of busy and loud newsrooms. When I’m teaching, I relish in the opportunity to speak with my classes and then I return back to my office and my cats. At the end of the day, I go home to six kids, a husband, and a farm filled with rescue animals and livestock. I love people in small doses and relish in the quiet calm of life. It’s just how I’m built. There’s nothing wrong with that, nor is there anything wrong with being the complete and total opposite. But for me, I had to learn how to get out there and talk to people, interview them, and not outwardly feel like an idiot. The first time I was sent out on assignment to interview a source, I made myself physically ill. I had to talk to someone that I didn’t know about a topic I didn’t necessarily understand and hope that they didn’t judge me for all of eternity. Listen up. Sources are more forgiving than you think. They’re the expert after all, so let them be the expert. But you’re going to have to actually talk to them in order to make that happen.


Can You Live With Yourself?

At the end of the day, can you look at yourself in the mirror and say that you honestly and ethically did your job to the best of your ability? You treated sources and your industry with the utmost of journalistic integrity? The day that you can’t say ‘yes’ is the day that you need to again seek out that seasoned reporter or your editor and fill them in on the fact that you’re struggling. There is no shame in reaching out and letting others know that you need help. It’s the lack of doing so that is cause for concern.

Journalism schools are constantly adapting to new technologies and storytelling techniques, but the 10 items listed above will never change. You will always have to know the law, be an ethical and trustworthy journalist, and to get out of your chair and pound the pavement of your city. Journalism is work, but it can also be one of the most rewarding careers imaginable. Journalism puts you in the front seat to be a change-maker, a recorder of history, and to meet some of the most inspirational and amazing people this world has to offer. I will forever say that journalism is the best, yet most challenging, career field and I’m ecstatic that so many university students are setting themselves on the path to continue the hard work that those of us before you started.

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