I’ve now moved into another sector, after conceding that the constant job cuts and low pay in the field was just too stressful to handle. Though I loved every minute (well, nearly) of being a journalist, holding my breath every week and waiting for the job-guillotine to put an end to my position became harder and harder.
Following the advice (and the footsteps) of many a former journalist, I looked for other industries which could use my ‘communications expertise’ and ‘writing skills’.
What I’ve found has been enormously frustrating – and a lot of it is due to a fundamental lack of understanding as to what journalists actually do.
Without exception, everyone that I’ve talked to assumes that the bulk of journalists’ work comes down to one thing: writing. They then take that assumption to assume: 1) we’re very good at writing, 2) we love to write, 3) whatever we do next, it must include a lot of writing.
I can’t speak for other journalists, but in my case, it’s hard to imagine them being any more wrong.
True, most journalists are fairly decent writers. We need to be, to convey a point clearly in a small amount of text. Add onto that the often complex subject we’re writing about, which we have just learned about ourselves, and we have to be very good at how we use our words.
Very few journalists I know enjoy the writing process. It’s torturous. We only do it because we have to.
Furthermore, ‘writing’ accounted for maybe 5% of my overall job as a journalist.
I don’t know why people assume that journalists just sit down at a desk, raise their fingers above a keyboard, and let the words flow. That’s not at all what the process looks like.
Being a journalist is easily 85% to 90% research – which comes in a lot of forms. First, we have to find a story that needs more attention. For my most recent beat (mining in Canada), that meant looking through countless company press releases, Twitter feeds, and local publications detailing what new laws were being debated, voted on, or contested, keeping up to speed on new mines, knowing when funding was being pulled from a project, and why, as well as knowing the political climate in over a dozen jurisdictions.
To give an example: the last story I wrote for S&P Global Market Intelligence was about the suicide crisis in the northern Ontario town of Attawapiskat, and whether an unfair deal with a diamond miner may have contributed to this outbreak.
I chose to do the story because the Attawapiskat suicide crisis was major news, with every news outlet covering it. Missing from almost all that coverage? The role of a diamond mining company operating near the town, and whether that company had reneged on its agreements to provide jobs, opportunities and development for indigenous residents of the isolated town.
Before I spoke to anyone, I first had to dig in and do reams of research. I investigated what the indigenous population had said in the past about their dealings with the mining firm, as well as any documents the firm made available on the nature of its agreement with the local community. I looked into what mining associations and Aboriginal groups said about the town and the mining industry, and read many reports from Canadian think tanks about Aboriginal-resource company relations and how it had changed over the last 20 years.
Armed with that information, I then hit the phones.
I called everyone – the mining company, the local governance association, a Canada-wide group representing Aboriginals in their dealings with the natural resource industry, firms which advised Aboriginal groups on how to negotiate effectively with resource firms, and law firms specialising in representing Aboriginal claims to resource companies (and the diamond mining company, which wasn’t talking). Each interview took a few hours to set up, involved at least 1 hour on the phone. Following this, after each interview, I double-checked my notes, doing what I could to ensure I transcribed the quote correctly, and followed up with the source if my notes were unclear at any point.
So now that I’d done research and interviews, you’d think I would be done. But I wasn’t.
Because what I found from the interviews was another question that needed to be investigated. The mining company may or may not have negotiated in good faith and followed through on what it promised for the community, but nearly everyone I spoke to pointed to the unbalanced nature of negotiations between companies, who had access to the best and savviest lawyers, and Aboriginal groups, who were often very new to the process and were unable to negotiate in the same capacity.
Which meant I had to do more research, about negotiations this time, and then, another round of interviews – this time digging up who the best people were to talk to about negotiations, barriers to fair talks, and legal and political measures which helped or hindered this process.
Interviews are also laden with challenges – everyone has their pressure points, biases, and areas they’re not comfortable talking about. Sometimes you can get away with not touching on these areas, and get the information you need. Other times, you have to find a way to negotiate those potholes in such a way that you don’t piss off your source TOO much and still get the information you need.
This whole process took the better part of two weeks – and I hadn’t even touched the writing part yet.
In the end, I spent about 3 hours pulling together my notes, my outlines, and the transcribed interviews into (what I hope) was a cohesive, coherent and balanced piece on existing challenges facing Aboriginal communities in securing a fair deal with resource companies developing deposits on Aboriginal land.
And very little of that time was spent ‘writing’. By far, the biggest part of “writing” this article was the research that went into it. You can spend all the time you have writing, but if you haven’t dug up the relevant facts, if you haven’t spoken to the people who know the most about the issue, you’re not doing journalism. You’re writing an opinion piece, with no new information for the reader whatsoever,
RESEARCH is what journalists do. The rest of it is just window dressing.