By Tom Hill, Course Director and Founder, Up To Speed Journalism.
- Tip #22 Mimic Your Heroes
The best writers read a lot, the best songwriters listen to a lot of music and the best film directors watch a lot of movies. And when they come to produce their first novels, songs and films, they often draw inspiration from professionals they admire.
It is just the same in journalism. Find people whose work, or working methods, you admire and use what you can learn from them. There is no copyright on ideas and so lap up other reporter’s original thinking. It could be the way they start an intro on a news story, or an imaginative piece to camera on a TV news report, or the kinds of questions they ask at a press conference to get good answers.
It is good to have heroes and heroines and by that I mean professionals whose work you admire. As we see all too often with sporting heroes or celebrities, other aspects of their lives may sometimes be less than inspiring. That’s not what counts here though, because we are only interested in their professional work.
So, who do I recommend you try to emulate?
Here are two dozen journalists, or groups of journalists, whose work I think you can learn from.
- Dith Pran, who died two years ago, was a photojournalist for the New York Times. He survived for four years of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in which up to a third of his fellow countrymen perished. Dith Pran is typical of so many unsung heroes in journalism, the local “interpreter” or “fixer” used by foreign correspondents to help them cover the story for a western news organisation. In his case it was Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times. Schanberg’s book about Dith Pran, and the ordeal he suffered after the the American reporter was forced to abandon Cambodia, formed the basis for the 1984 film, The Killing Fields. The actor who played Dith Pran won an Oscar.
2. Burma VJ is also a film about journalists recording the plight of their fellow countrymen and it is also shortlisted for an Oscar, but in 2010 in the Best documentary category. The VJs of the title are people, often Buddhist monks, who bravely used video cameras and the internet to try to draw attention to a brutal crackdown in their country.
3. Terry Lloyd is a reporter I worked with at ITN. In 1988 he broke the story that Saddam Hussein had gassed the Kurds at Halabja. He died in March 2003 when the minibus he was travelling in was fired on by US forces near Basra. Terry was not embedded with any military unit. He preferred to report from a more impartial position. In October, 2006 a British coroner ruled that Terry had been “unlawfully killed”. Terry was a brave and hugely experienced reporter who always regarded himself as a newshound rather than a TV news performer.
4. Frederic Nerac was Terry’s cameraman on that day. Seven years on, Frederic’s family can only presume that he died at the scene, because neither the US nor British governments have ever revealed what happened to him. Terry and Frederic’s colleague at ITN, Mark Austin, was once asked: “What makes a good TV reporter?” His answer was, “A good cameraman.” It’s a simple answer, but very true. Cameramen, camerawomen and photographers are often the unsung heroes, but it is so often their images that remain etched on our minds.
5. Robert Fisk is a veteran reporter who has often taken the brave step of showing the other side of the story and who has worked hard to champion objective reporting of the Middle East. His reports for the Independent have earned him many awards, but have also made him the object of fierce criticism from some quarters. Fisk has interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times.
6. Frank Gardner, the BBC’s Security Correspondent, was attacked and wounded by Al-Qaeda gunmen in Saudi Arabia in 2004. A brave television cameraman called Simon Cumbers died at his side. Frank Gardner returned to work ten months later in a wheelchair and has been working ever since despite his injuries.
7. Caroline Hawley was the BBC’s Baghdad Correspondent for three years from 2003-2006. Caroline studied Arabic and Farsi at Oxford and spent a total of eight years reporting from the Middle East.
8. Orla Guerin is one of the BBC’s most senior foreign correspondents. Currently based in Pakistan, she has covered the Middle East, Africa and conflicts in the Balkans.
9. Robert Peston has carved out a special niche for himself at the BBC with his insightful, and often exclusive reporting of developments in the Credit Crunch as its Business Editor. His book, Who Runs Britain? lifts the lid on the influence of high finance, venture capital and risky speculation on British society and he provides daily insights through his blog.
10. Stephanie Flanders is the BBC’s Economics Editor and also provides useful commentary through her blog, Stephanomics. She is the grand-daughter of Claud Cockburn, who covered the Spanish Civil War as a reporter in 1936. Like Peston before her, Stephanie Flanders read PPE at Balliol College, Oxford. She also studied at Harvard for two years.
11. Camilla Cavendish, another Oxford PPE and Harvard-educated journalist, writes for the Times. Her campaigning journalism over the rights of children in Family Courts has earned her several awards and plaudits including the 2008 Paul Foot Award and the Best Campaign Award for The Times at the British Press Awards last year.
12. Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian won the best interviewer category at the same awards ceremony and you can read her pieces in the Guardian’s G2 section.
13. Lynn Barber is one of the finest interviewers British journalism has produced and you can buy several collections of her best pieces. An Education is her latest book. It’s an autobiographical account of coming of age in the 1960s and it’s been nominated for three Oscars this year, including one for Nick Hornby’s screenplay adaptation and another for Carey Mulligan, who plays Barber.
14. Dawn Porter has become a role model for many young TV journalists, with her explorations of risqué and personal subjects for BBC3, Channel 4 and Five. She is currently based in Hollywood, but you can follow her on Twitter to see what she is up to.
15. Louis Theroux is another broadcaster with an ability to get under the skin of his subjects. I always remember being in the newsroom at Sky and seeing him leave an East London police station with Neil and Christine Hamilton, who had suddenly found themselves at the centre of a media storm, accused – falsely, as it transpired – of crimes I couldn’t mention in a family blog. As the Hamiltons sped past the media scrum, Louis was there in the car with them and it was clear he had no intention of “making his excuses” and leaving.
16. Charlie Brooker has provided some biting, but insightful commentary on hisScreenwipe, Gameswipe and Newswipe programmes. He won Column of the Year at last year’s British Press Awards for his writing in the Guardian.
17. Jamie Oliver is on my list, because I believe his School Dinners series for Channel 4 used television to lift the lid on an unpalatable underbelly of British life and also prompted Government reform. Jamie may not regard himself as a reporter, but I think he deserves to be counted among the more influential citizen journalists of our time.
18. Fern Britton also features in my list, and not because she’s married to celebrity chef Phil Vickery. Her interview with Tony Blair on Fern Britton Meets..in November 2009, produced the most candid account to date of the former Prime Minister’s views on the Iraq War.
19. The Daily Telegraph MPs’ Expenses Team has produced the best, most influential and long-running scoop in British journalism’s history and the story is not over yet. How they came by the information, how much they paid for it and how lucky they were to receive it, are matters for debate. But the painstaking way they pieced together the story, the way they created a daily drip-feed of new revelations, which dominated the agenda, and the ongoing implications for parliament, cannot be overlooked.
20. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein showed even greater tenacity in pursuing a political scandal 35 years earlier when they refused to let the implications of a burglary at a Washington office block go away. Watch or read All The President’s Men and you will see what I mean.
21. Tina Brown is a British journalist who took New York by storm. After becoming editor-in-chief of Tatler at the age of 25, she went on to edit both Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Her latest venture is the online newspaper, The Daily Beast.
22. Harold Evans is Tina Brown’s husband, but he is also regarded as one of the most influential Britain’s newspaper editors of the Twentieth Century. He was editor of The Sunday Times at the time it broke the thalidomide story and he has written several highly regarded books on his profession. The latest came out just a few months ago. It’s called My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times and it is an inspirational read.
23. Truman Capote remains a thought-provoking writer whose literary approach to a murder story In Cold Blood reminds us that the search for truth is not always best achieved by conventional journalism.
24. Graham Greene is another writer whose novels have provided insights which perhaps have more resonance than daily news reports. To understand the plight of Haiti, you can do a lot worse than read his 1966 novel, The Comedians, which was set there during the time of Papa Doc Duvalier.