Career Advice: So You Want to Be a Journalist?
Jo Wilding – Islam Online August 30, 2006
To be honest, I'm not sure I know how to be a journalist, certainly not a "proper" one who gets paid regularly. For a while, when I was at school, I wanted to be a journalist. I went to a talk on career choices and was told to get plenty of experience, such as working at hospital radio; to make sure I had a good knowledge of current affairs; and to expect to start out writing for local newspapers. But, the advisor told us, the unfortunate truth was that, at least in television journalism, the most important thing was not your qualifications, but your appearance.
I had long since decided against journalism and so decided to study law when I first went to Iraq. I kept a blog, writing first about the people I met and the things that were happening, then documenting civilian casualties during the bombing in spring 2003. I later recorded people's stories of life under occupation and during the April 2004 siege of Fallujah. My blog entries started being passed on, via the Internet, and then reprinted in newspapers and magazines all over the world. John Pilger, a well-known journalist, included one of my pieces from Fallujah in his anthology of investigative journalism Tell Me No Lies.
Pilger is a journalist who, for decades, has reported on injustices and abuse of human rights from the killing fields of Cambodia to the forced depopulation of the Chagos Islands by the UK government to make way for a US military base. He has fiercely criticized the many compliant journalists who — willfully, lazily, or otherwise — fail to challenge governments, militaries, corporations, and so on.
My advice to you, for what it's worth, is this:
Question everything. In briefing journalists on the invasion of Iraq, Coalition military spokespeople referred to liberation until the word was so ingrained in the journalists' minds that it began to appear in their reports and, from there, in the public consciousness.
In the United Kingdom, when the last Conservative government was pushing through a massive and environmentally devastating road building program, it constantly used the word investment to refer to new roads and, by contrast, subsidy to refer to money put into public transport. Journalists need to question not only the information they are given by those in power but also the meaning of the words they use.
Be precise. Vague and emotive language, slogans, and stock phrases are the tools of dictators and dissemblers. Democracy demands that we be precise and say what we mean clearly. We can never be objective, as some journalists claim to be, because we all have a perspective, but we can be exact.
Look for people rather than "stories." During the invasion in Iraq, journalists all went out to see the first civilian houses that had been bombed. Some went to see the remnants of the second such incident. The third, tenth, and hundredth houses that had been bombed were ignored because they were not "news."
The voices of ordinary Iraqis were silenced both by Saddam Hussein's leadership and by the Western media, which chose to quote military and political figures instead of ordinary Iraqis. But after Saddam, people's voices were still not being heard and, wherever I went, people told me their stories and asked me to pass them on and to tell the whole world what was happening in Iraq.
Go where the silence is. This is the responsibility of the journalist, said Amy Goodman, a US-based journalist and broadcaster. She marched with demonstrators in East Timor against Indonesian occupation and saw the slaughter. She was the only Western journalist there at the time. I went to Fallujah when almost all reporters had either left or had been embedded with the US troops. The ambulance I was traveling in was shot at by US Marines. The Pentagon claimed that ambulances were targeted only when they fired first, but I knew that was a lie because I had been there.
I would not suggest that you put yourself in immense danger, though sometimes silence and danger are in the same place, but there are silences everywhere: in the arms trade, in the pharmaceutical industry, in factory farms, in countries forced to accept "structural adjustment" by the World Bank, and in homes where domestic violence occurs.
Although I appreciate that journalists faced huge obstacles in reporting on Iraq under Saddam Hussein, they still had had 12 years to talk to ordinary Iraqis about the effects of economic sanctions, and yet barely a word had appeared in the US or UK media. Very few reporters gave Iraqis a voice. Every government is oppressing someone, and it is up to that country's journalists to let their public know.
I know that's easy for me to say, living in a country where journalists are relatively safe from official reprisal while in other parts of the world, writers face arrest, torture, and prison for what they publish. To those writers and reporters, the rest of us have a duty to try to listen to their voices, whether from exile or through blogs, or in whatever form. We must actively listen to those voices and help spread their messages.
Jo Wilding is a British human rights campaigner, writer, and trainee lawyer from Bristol, United Kingdom. Her writings about Iraq and ordinary Iraqis have been published in The Guardian, The New Zealand Herald, Counterpunch, Australian Radio, and in Japan, Korea, and Pakistan. Click here to visit Jo Wilding's website
Last updated 18/01/2007