We won’t wade into the current debate over ‘who is a journalist’, except to suggest this simple definition: A journalist is anyone who, in live time, helps deepen an audience’s honest understanding of the people or circumstances around them.
In our case, we aim to help outstanding subject-matter specialists become great reporters, not pundits. Fellows will be women and men with the potential to lead the global coverage of their own fields by breaking news, not just by offering their own opinions.
It’s tough work, and there is no single personality type doing it. But some qualities do distinguish the types of people we’re seeking:
You need to be very hungry to “own” the coverage of your specialty—your beat. You must have the urge to find untold stories that are important to your audience, to report on those stories until you’ve broken the news and to tell it more reliably and compellingly than your competitors.
Cynicism and world-weariness—that sense of having seen everything before—are toxic in journalism. You need an ongoing sense of wonder at the world: an unrelenting curiosity, and more... You need to take joy in finding the counter-intuitive ways in which your stories play- out, internationally.
Polite persistence is key. You need to keep knocking—politely—on dozens and dozens of doors as they get slammed in your face, often over weeks and months, either until the right door opens or you find a better path. You’ll be reporting globally, but language barriers are no excuse. Find a way around.
Day to day, many great reporters display these qualities through their sense of humour. They also show it in their humility—as they shape their own opinions around facts they find and sources who understand a story better than they do. And great reporters operate with respect—for their audiences, for sources they trust as guides to complex subjects, for their editors and collaborators and, most importantly, for the integrity of their coverage. Great reporters are subtle listeners.
You’re responsible for deepening your audiences’ honest understanding of their world. That requires a very high standard of analytic rigour and intellectual discipline. You need a critical mind that is queasy about generalizations and seeks evidence instead. You need the discipline to change your story as the evidence you find deviates from your original understanding; and even to kill your story entirely if you find no evidence to support your ideas.
You need to be reliable; which means planning your reporting and sticking to your timeframe; knowing when to file a story—or elements of it—and not being late.
Discipline also means respecting your lay audience. Insider jargon is seductive and useful, but you need the discipline to kill the jargon and explain complex ideas in plain language to smart, lay audiences.
You need to question assumptions that other people take for granted. That includes looking for ways your stories play out around the world and not just in one or two countries you know well.
When your instinct tells you to explore an unconventional view—because it might be very important to your audience—you can’t wait for the dust to settle. You have to start reporting. You must have the guts to “just go”.
Most importantly, you need an independent mind. You must have the intellectual rigour and confidence to challenge even those you admire, or with whom you sympathize.