Since I wrote yesterday about overcoming obstacles, I thought this would be a good time to republish this post from my Training Tracks blog at the American Press Institute. I think it’s the first time where I discussed this in writing, though I know I have repeated the point in writing and speaking many time. It’s one of the principles of journalism practice that I believe most strongly.
I edited lightly to update, adding a few links, but have not checked the links I published at the time to see if they are still active, though I think I should leave them in either way. This was published originally Aug. 16, 2005. Frankly, I’m a little disappointed with the writing; I tried to tie two points together and probably should have addressed them separately. But this is an archival post, not a rewrite.
The post refers to some other posts about computer-assisted reporting. I will republish those posts soon. The post refers to a comment by Iqbal Tamimi on one of those posts. Because the original post is no longer online, I can no longer find the full comment.
I figured I was done writing about journalists and computers for a while after three posts on the subject in a month’s time. But then I heard Sree Sreenivasan. And then Iqbal Tamimi wrote me. So I’m addressing the topic one more time.
I’ve read Sree’s “Web Tips” columns for a few years now. He wrote once about the “No Train, No Gain” web site that I help Dolf Els run along with some other newsroom trainers. After Sree interviewed me for that column, we’ve kept in occasional touch by e-mail and we finally met in June, when I spoke at a conference of the South Asian Journalists Association, of which Sree is a founder. I finally heard Sree train journalists last week at API’s seminar for news editors and copy desk chiefs.
I didn’t meet Iqbal until last week, when she read my post, “Think of computers as fact finders.”
Sree’s talk and Iqbal’s e-mails humbled me and inspired me. As I listened to Sree, I realized how much more I had to learn about using computers myself. As I read Iqbal’s messages, I realized I didn’t sufficiently appreciate the blessings American journalists have, including access to government data and access to strong training programs.
My last post expressed frustration at journalists who say they “don’t need to know” data analysis skills. Iqbal’s response, which is posted online with that post, said some reporters in the Middle East “still write their reports by hand and fax them because they don’t know how to handle the simple keyboard.” I guess at any stage of technology, some reporters think they don’t need to know how to use the tools of their trade.
Iqbal is a reporter with Alarabiya TV station in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. She expressed frustration with some colleagues: “I found out that even though we spent huge amounts of money buying high tech devises and invested millions in the media business still we failed to represent ourselves well, for the very simple reason, that we don’t know how to benefit or get the most out of such high tech devises, hence we miss the opportunity to have a balanced dialogue with other nations, some of us even don’t know the basics and don’t want to learn.”
She could be writing about American reporters.
Iqbal provides the perfect illustration for something I’ve preached for a long time: Don’t let obstacles become excuses.
We face obstacles as we pursue stories, as we plan our careers, as we pursue our dream jobs. The obstacles are real. They frustrate us. They challenge us. They hold us back. They delay us from reaching our goals. But by the time we’re done, we have to make the obstacle part of the war story of our success, not the excuse for our failure.
Iqbal faces more severe obstacles than most journalists I work with. She has survived a stabbing. She told of seeking data to support or refute claims made by her government about sport programs helping combat crime. She lamented the lack of crime data available in the Arab world and finally found some information from Australia about sports and crime. Wherever you are, whatever your level of technology and data availability, resourcefulness distinguishes the best reporters.
More about Iqbal later.
One of the frustrating things about working at API is that you can’t spend your full day sitting in on our seminars. I have work to do, but each day that a seminar is going on in the building (we had two going simultaneously last week), I look at the schedules and wish I could spend an hour or a few listening to this speaker or that one. Last week, I had to make time to listen to Sree’s presentation, “Smarter Surfing on Deadline.”
I’ve been reading Sree’s tips for years, but I was chagrined to see how much I’d forgotten or how many times I’d read a post and thought I should check that site out sometime, but never did. As he showed the news editors and copy desk chiefs what is available for them to check facts on deadline, I was humbled at how little I knew about the resources available on the web.
I made notes not just of web sites to check out (I’ve really checked some out already), but also of lines to steal for my own training (I’ll credit him here, even if I forget to when I actually use the lines): These sites don’t necessarily provide the answers, but clues to where you can find the answers; this should become routine in your newsroom (checking people out on http://www.pretrieve.com/; there is something in blogging that is going to change our business but we don’t know yet what it is.
One valuable site that Sree, dean of students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, showed the news editors was the Society of Professional Journalists’ Rainbow Sourcebook, which Sree described as an antidote to the “Nexis virus.” That virus, he said, is the repeated use of the same sources we find in other reporters’ stories. And most of them are white males.
“Journalists want to be the first on any story but don’t want to take a risk on a new expert,” Sree explained.
Rainbow Sourcebook allows you to search for sources by topic, by geography and by several demographic factors, providing more diversity to the voices in your stories.
If you want to take one step that will make you a better reporter, editor or newsroom trainer, make this pledge that I made: Bookmark Sree’s page, “Smarter Surfing“, and each week for the next year, explore one of the links thoroughly and consider how that would be useful for you or for your colleagues. You might want to start with SearchSystems, a database of public records that Iqbal and aggressive journalists in Arab countries would envy.
After her initial message, Iqbal and I exchanged some more e-mails.
Want to know where she learned her computer skills? Unlike American journalists, she doesn’t have access to the dozens of courses taught each year by Sree and other journalism professors and by the National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting.
“I never had the courage to do any work while my husband was alive,” Iqbal wrote. After her husband died, “First thing I learned English, then my son who was very little showed me how to use the computer. He was 4 (my first teacher) … from there I started building up my new world. I have published two books this year, one is a book of poems, the other is of International Affairs.”
Her 4-year-old son taught her how to use the computer. What’s your excuse for not mastering it?