Sunday, 12 June 2011

Journalists must be ruthless. Discuss.

The three types of career that appeal to me (law, business and journalism) all have the stigma of requiring brutality in order to succeed. I find this slightly worrying. A friend recently challenged me on whether I’m suited to the cut-throat industry of journalism and it got me thinking: do journalists need to be ruthless?

Without question journalists have some unsavoury duties. For example, ‘doorstepping’ the family of someone killed in an accident. Journalists seek the truth, and that can involve asking confrontational questions or invading someone’s privacy. The bigger the story, the less important compassion and empathy becomes. Journalism is certainly not for the meek.

However, I refuse to believe that journalists need to be hardnosed and heartless. For starters, I will not get far if this is true. A good story needs good quotes, so journalists need to get people talking. People aren’t chatty if they sense you’re out to fool them in some way; so bullying interviewees is not productive. Whilst it’s true that many scoops come from journalists lulling people into a false sense of security; such a tactic won’t work twice on that person. Succeeding in journalism requires a mixture of very hard work, a bit of luck and good contacts. If you treat someone badly to get a story, you will not be able to use that person again.

A compelling story is a successful story, so empathy is crucial. With the doorstepping example; a bereaved family may wish to pay tribute to their relative if approached tactfully and given space to grieve. The ruthless journalist who dives in too soon shoots himself in the foot as well as upsetting others.

Overall I think competitiveness and determination are different to ruthlessness, and that it’s possible to succeed in journalism with your morals still intact. Being approachable and reliable are much more valuable skills in my view, but maybe I’m naive.

Any comments? Discuss below...


  1. i think if you can stick to your morals whatever it is that you're doing, then people repsect that. for example, if you think that people deserve to know about sienna miller's private life, then stick to your guns. but if you do think that...god help you!

  2. That's a really good point. A lot of journalists seem to get deluded that they're simply unearthing the truth and sharing it. I was really shocked when I watched this journalist on 10 o'clock live genuinely defending actions which break the law in the interests of 'truth':

  3. I think you're right and that morals can be kept intact in journalism but it can come at the expense of your career and depending on what sort of journalism you want to do. The really nitty gritty stuff will mean having to do things that aren't very nice.. for example when the mps were doing their dodgy claims lots of reporters were going through their bins to try and discover the inside info! To me that's immoral and an invasion of privacy but it just depends on what you want to write about and what you believe!

  4. Being ruthless and abandoning your morals may not always be the same thing. For instance, it is perfectly moral (and perhaps even dutiful) to want to unearth the truth behind a politician's actions, even if doing so may require in some way deceiving them or being firm and aggressive in an interview. Don't you think?

  5. I agree that holding your own in an interview is different to being immoral, and may require a firm or even an aggressive attitude - which could be seen as ruthless. As far as deceiving someone I'm not sure that's necessary or even good tactics, for the reason I stated above. In the bin searching example Becky gave I don't think you can argue that the ends justify the means because everyone has the right to respect for private and family life (art 8 ECHR). I'm sure courses in Investigative Journalism don't cover a Bin Searching Module...