In order to become a good journalist you first have to become a journalist. The profession is changing rapidly these years, both in terms of technology but also in the way that journalism is taught.
Back in the days, journalism was seen as a trade where the hopeful young journalist-to-be would get an apprenticeship at a media organisation. The trainee would then learn the trade from older and experienced journalists, working their way up through the ranks of the newspaper or broadcaster in question. Some opportunities like this still exist, particularly at smaller local news organisations, but they’re becoming increasingly rare. Some old school journalists bemoan this development and will tell you about the ‘good old days’, although these days were arguable also characterised by nepotism, machismo and a sometimes unhealthy amount of alcohol.
Today, however, most young journalists enter the profession via a university course. During the 1970s and 80s the apprenticeship model gradually changed as universities began to offer courses that combined journalism practice with academic theory. These are either three-year undergraduate courses or one-year postgraduate courses that students usually take after an undergraduate in another discipline. Often, the university courses are combined with internships or work experience to get a feeling of how journalism works in practice. Thus, doing a journalism course will, in principle, make you a journalist.
The next question, then, is how do you become a good journalist? As anything else in life, this is down to practice, practice and more practice. At the heart of journalism lies storytelling, and any good journalist needs to engage their audience. A good story has a clear theme, a narrative arch and role distribution. Practically all news stories are modelled over the tension between villains, heroes and victims, and mastering these storytelling techniques is crucial whether you do online, broadcast or print news.
This is a skill you can practice on a daily basis: whenever you watch or read a news story, ask yourself who are talking and why they are saying what they are saying.
A critical sense is important as well. Not necessarily because everything and everyone should be questioned relentlessly, but as a journalist you should try to go beyond how things appear on the surface and find out what lies beneath, particularly when it comes to those in power. This is a skill you can practice on a daily basis: whenever you watch or read a news story, ask yourself who are talking and why they are saying what they are saying. Critical awareness includes being self-critical. The media are a very powerful part of society, and as a journalist it’s vital to be aware of this power. A good journalist will constantly ask: why am I telling the story in this particular way?
Finally, I would stress ethics. A good journalist is an ethical journalist. This includes not hacking peoples’ phones (obviously), but it also entails being aware of the people you report on. People under pressure, people in distress or people in shock might not have the same overview as the journalist, and it’s important not to take advantage of this in the name of storytelling. Talking to people is a major part of being a journalist, and it’s important to represent these people fairly and accurately.
So in short: to become a good journalist you can look into university programmes or perhaps apprenticeships, and you can practice storytelling, critical awareness and empathy on a day-to-day basis. After all, news is about people so use the people around you to sharpen these skills and you’ve already come a long way. Good luck!