By Tom Hill, Course Director and Founder of Up To Speed Journalism Training.
Back in 1969, the war correspondent Nicholas Tomalin wrote a piece in the Sunday Times, which has been quoted frequently ever since.
The Cambridge English graduate, who was to die covering the Yom Kippur War four years later, gave a self-deprecating assessment of his profession.
“The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are rat-like cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability.”
Journalists may require the cunning of rats, and sometimes the curiosity of cats, to find out about people and their stories, but they are more often compared to dogs, thankfully.
Collectively, reporters are referred to as the press pack and individually they are sometimes described as newshounds.
On big stories, or in places where reporters frequently gather in groups, such as the Lobby in Westminster, journalists may get together to chew over the facts and can sometimes come to a collective decision on the angle of the story.
Hunting outside that pack can be rewarding, but it can also be risky, because there is always a chance that you will miss the angle or the story.
The idea of hunting, or sniffing out stories, also conjures up other canine metaphors. Tracking the scent of a story, often in the face of obstacles put in place by those who want their secrets to remain buried, requires dogged determination, patience, and hard work. Teasing out the facts, and cornering the reluctant interviewee, can sometimes require the tenacity of a terrier.
Reporters must not be put off the scent by a rebuff or a failure to answer a call, and on some stories, journalists have to work painstakingly through pages of dense and baffling waffle to discover the truth.
A classic example of this is the Daily Telegraph’s investigation into MPs’ expenses last year. A small and dedicated team of reporters retired to a “bunker” away from the main newsroom for days to sift through every detail of every expense. They had to spot stories, but also to understand and explain the complicated financial manoeuvres made by the country’s elected representatives. It was these reporters, and not those making the expenses claims, who coined the phrase to “flip” properties.
You can see a depiction of this kind of dogged determination to root out a political scandal, by two reporters who chose to hunt away from the main pack, in All The President’s Men, the 1976 film about Watergate.
It’s a film, which stands the test of time. You see reporters Woodward and Bernstein, pounding the streets, bashing the phones and sifting laboriously through library catalogues in search of the key facts. And you see them persevering despite the threats of those in authority, the sneers of some of their colleagues and the doors slammed in their faces.
It’s amazing what reporters will do for a front-page splash and a pat on the back.
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