Like everyone else, journalists need others in order to succeed

opinion October 16, 2012 00:00

By Achara Deboonme

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"It takes two to tango" is a common expression. It means that certain events or actions require the interaction of people working closely as a pair.

The phrase sprang to mind while I was watching “Argentina’s Tango Legends”, the closing item of Bangkok’s 14th International Festival of Dance and Music. In the erotic onstage action, the men were outshone by the female dancers in their magnificent dresses. But without the men, they could never have danced the way they did.

In this world, it seems that most actions take two or more actors to be a success. The European Union would not have achieved the success that won it this year’s Nobel Peace Prize without the support of all 27 members.
International trade would not be blossoming as it is without the World Trade Organisation ensuring that all players follow the game’s single set of rules.
Likewise, journalists would get nowhere in their career without the aid of others.
First are the sources. For business reporters like me, sources can range from corporate PRs and executives to CEOs. Stick around long enough and you can befriend executives who will one day become top executives. But establishing those connections takes time and mutual respect. And gaining respect means making promises that you must keep. Your company source may tell you things “off the record”, or allow you to publish their information, but only if you don’t use their name.
Yes, you can also be exploited by sources. And I speak from personal experience. Once, a source at a government ministry gave me “inside information” about an auction. I trusted him wholeheartedly, since he had been a friend at university. Turns out I was foolish enough to think that the news he leaked was trustworthy. I wrote the story, only to learn a day later that some of his information had been wrong.
That was a painful lesson, but it also taught me a valuable lesson. If a friend can exploit you, others can too. Never let anything slip under your “truth-seeking” radar, whatever the source.
Second in a journalist’s support network are your colleagues. If you’re lucky, starting out you will have senior colleagues who are willing to share their experiences and inspirations, colleagues who are willing to teach you how to write good reports. I have to admit though that in today’s journalism, this old-style mentoring is becoming rare – particularly in the world of print news. For years now, newspapers have been suffering competition from rival media and have recruited fewer and fewer fresh graduates as a result. Without new blood, a newsroom can get stale. New recruits now tend to come from other newspapers or media, rather than straight from college. In addition, the age gap among reporters is wide, and the veterans often don’t have the time to share their experience. They have their own world to look after, and that’s too much already. Yes, I too am tied up with so many duties, but I try my best to inspire rookie reporters.
Third are the PR people. They present a tricky challenge – you must know when to make use of PR representatives, both those from companies and those from PR firms acting on behalf of companies. Rookie Thai journalists often rely on PR. You attend the press conferences and write up the stories according to what you heard. Information from press releases will often fill at least two-thirds of your stories. This makes it difficult to distinguish one newspaper from the others.
PR people also feed you information, and encourage you to fix interviews with their bosses. Junior reporters sometimes pass assignments on to their senior colleagues, who may want to cultivate their connections with big businesses or make sure that a “hot” issue gets the coverage it deserves. 
Yes, sometimes, we even go to them, seeking out PR people for information to back up a story or for hints about breaking news. They can also be useful when you want a direct link with an executive who can answer urgent questions – particularly when you don’t have the executive’s mobile phone number. But some reporters step beyond that line: they establish personal friendships with PR types, which can make it hard to turn down any invitation.
Dealing with PR people can be a headache – some can be pushy while others are inefficient. For example, some will e-mail press releases but fail to monitor their inbox for any questions or special requests. Answers can come days or weeks later, which is too late.
Fourth is the reading public. It is crucial that you establish creditability among your readers. This is achieved with regular stories that contain facts and leave out your opinions, hearsay or faulty information. With the rise of Twitter and other social media, it is vital that we don’t just “retweet” dubious information without checking. I myself get caught up in the mood of the moment occasionally, but readers’ e-mails always prevent me from straying too far from objectivity.
Last weekend, I grabbed the chance to see new French film “Intouchables”. Based on a true story, it tells the tale of a wealthy, physically disabled aristocrat whose world is turned upside down when he hires a young black ex-con as his carer. Forging an unlikely bond, they prove the power of love and friendship to overcome social and economic differences.
The film was thoroughly inspiring. Peace of mind only comes in the “dance” with others, was the message. Only by coming together can we make tomorrow a brighter day than today.