The noble art of critical investigation

I have spent the past week overseeing a summer journalism school and wrestling with the question: how do you train a new generation of journalists in critical thinking?

When editors are asked ‘What does every journalist need?”, we tend to rattle off a list of practical, can-do skills. A journalist needs a notepad and pen, a nose for a good story, a little black book packed with contacts, a passion for fact checking, and an ability to write crisp copy under pressure.

But a good journalist also needs a little bit extra: gumption, attitude, and an ability to think critically. Today – when much of journalism trots out the Government line (behold the outbreak of Gordon Brown-nosing in the media) or only criticises the authorities in a cynical, ‘they’re all lying bastards’fashion – how does one teach budding writers about the noble art of critical investigation?

Spiked, the online magazine that I edit, inaugurated its annual summer school for state-school students in August last year. Following a Sutton Trust survey which found that 54 per cent of national newspaper editors, columnists and broadcasters went to private school, spiked decided it was time to inject some new blood into journalism’s hallowed halls.

We set up a week-long school for 16-to-18-year-olds from state schools, to show them that it is possible to break into journalism, perceived by some to be a closed shop for those with the ‘right’education and connections.

The second summer school, sponsored by the City of London and the Canary Wharf Group (CWG), took place recently in CWG’s plush and palatial 30th-floor boardroom.

The school is about training budding journalists in the ‘how to’of journalism – and the ‘why?’of critical thinking. The students were taken on eye-opening tours of BBC News studios and the rowdy offices of the News of the World. We taught them the nuts and bolts: how to write clearly, how to broadcast, how to structure a convincing comment piece.

We also created an atmosphere of open debate in which they could test out and hone their critical thinking. In one session the students were encouraged to read three well-known columnists’ views on whether Britain should apologise for the slave trade – not only so they might learn comment-writing tips, but so they could interrogate and counter the arguments of the old guard.

We invited seasoned journalists to talk to the students about the ‘extra-curricular’skills that a great hack requires. Tony Evans, deputy football editor of The Times, told them that knowing how to write is only the half of it.

‘You also need to see stories, which are everywhere,’he said.

Hannah Perry, news editor of Heat, related the tale of her first journalistic assignment: climbing the gates of Madonna’s new home. Her message? ‘Be prepared to take risks.”

Allen Therisa, editor of total:spec, a politics/fashion/music glossy, said a ‘grasp of grammar, narrative and style is helpful… obviously”, but you also need to be able to convey ‘your sense of the world in your own words”. Daniel Finkelstein, comment editor of The Times, said journalism is ‘more chemistry than physics”. In other words, there are no rigid formulas for getting the right result.

For Emily Hill, organiser of the school, the week showed that ‘while good writing is essential, there’s more to it than that”.

‘Journalism involves experimenting with ideas and being a thorn in people’s side,’she said. ‘Young students, if treated seriously, are willing to take intellectual risks.”

Brendan O’Neill is editor of Spiked – www.spiked-online.com

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