My 10 Pieces of Advice on Being a Journalist

By Graham Phillips

1. Studying journalism is good, but not essential – a proper journalism course unquestionably gives you a grounding in journalistic protocol. It will save you a few rookie errors you’d otherwise make, take out obvious pitfalls. Experience in the field is unquestionably the best teacher, at times it can be a tough one, but let it teach you all the time. From how to get a better response from witnesses, to being tardy to a press conference and still finding a top vantage point.

For those who haven’t done a journalism course, even those who have, a fresh approach which comes of not being limited by strictures is an exciting thing. Don’t be bound by conventions, Geneva or other, have strong ethics, but be unorthodox if that gets the best work.

Twitter2. Twitter – it’s how you are judged by your fellow journalists, employers, potential employers, your audience – your number of Twitter followers. Either as a student, or starting out, cultivate it, understand it, work it. Your career is right there in your Twitter followers.

3. Not just Twitter – Facebook, too allows you to communicate with your audience on a different level. Be accessible, when people know you, they approach you with stories, give them every chance to do this, make yourself as accessible as possible. And don’t forget offline, getting out, speaking, meeting, developing relationships with people is still king.

4. Learn to love your trolls – but don’t tell them that (ok, I just told them). I put out an announcement that I’d taken part in City University’s Question Time today, put on by the journalism department. I knew there’d be some troll comeback from this, there duly, swiftly was –

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And this is mild, I couldn’t even begin to count the threats, death threats I’ve had before even starting on the abuse. I’m on 34.5k Twitter followers now, daily interactions are in the thousands – trolling ranging from professional insult to personal maligning – ‘leukemia boy‘, ‘baldy’ well represented in there.  I’ve had, have, several accounts set up specifically to troll me.

I don’t tell them this, but I like it. It’s a sign that my work is hitting home. Real journalism should expose truths that many badly want concealed. They will take to Twitter to attack you for telling them. Learn to love your trolls, it means you are doing right. Also, if you do make a typo or so, they’ll tell you, perhaps not in the nicest way, but still useful –

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5. Don’t limit yourself – in the past decade, traditional patterns of journalistic employment have drastically altered. That idea of working for a local paper, building your career there, moving up through the ranks, it’s gone the way of faxing in copy.

Modern journalism is multi-platform, multi-employer. You can work for any channel in the world, you can work for yourself, work with every channel, agency in the world. You can do photo, articles, photos – it’s the most exciting time ever for journalism, it can all be yours.

SimonOstrovsky6. Don’t expect too much of people you’ve seen on the tv – they seemed so nice when you were watching their reports on tv, now you’re introduced to them at a press conference … and it isn’t so. I remember watching Simon Ostrovsky‘s dispatches, thinking of him as a cool, friendly, down-to-earth dude. I met him in person in Lugansk last April, he’s one of the most arrogant people I’ve encountered in my life. Aloof, pompous, stuffed with self-importance.

Daniel Sandford of the BBC, such a nice presence on screen, fairly nice in person too, but such a snipey, bitchy man on Twitter.

7. Always get to the place you are reporting from – there is no authority like being where the event itself is. TV companies will often have you in the town something is happening, but hamstrung to a hotel, tied to satellite link-up. Speak with them, emphasise the importance of your being on the scene, one hourly ‘live’ from a pavement would be much better missed if you can get to the scene, do a ‘live’ if possible, if not ‘as live’ from there.

8. Report what you film there, and accept a hard truth – that if you don’t have it on camera, you can get yourself into problems reporting it. I reported last year that Ukrainian soldiers had shot at me, but made a textbook error in not having captured it on camera, leaving myself wide open for a flailing. It was true, but I shouldn’t have reported it. It was a rookie error, hard at the time, turned out to be one of the most useful experiences in my career. After that, I never again reported what wasn’t on camera.

If you are quoting witnesses, be sure you’ve got them on camera saying that, if you don’t, a gaping opportunity for your opponents to say you ‘made it up‘.

9. Be aware of the tactics your opponents will deploy, don’t be phased – given my position, working for Russian media, seen as being ‘pro-Russian’, I was described as a ‘propagandist’ from early on. A simple tactic to discredit your work. Don’t be scared of it. Filming 1000 people saying they are pro-Russia isn’t Russian propaganda, it’s reporting.

Graham tanksWhen I filmed one ‘pro-Ukrainian’, my opponents seized on it for the next tactic, that you ‘cocked up’, ‘inadvertently’ ‘showed that which helps the pro-Ukraine side’. When I filmed tanks by Debaltsevo, again I’d supposedly ‘cocked up’, exposed ‘Russian tanks’. It was news to me, if you always film exactly what’s there, it’s impossible to ‘cock up’.

Of course, no proof at all these were ‘Russian tanks’. Don’t expect your opposition will apply the same professional standards that you do.

Covering the Donbass conflict as a correspondent, it was impossible not to be polarised on one side. And your opponents love nothing more than making hay on your supposedly showing that which aids the other side. Your supporters meanwhile may even question for you that.

Take it all in your stride. People may put you on one side, but the only side you should be on is that of showing all that’s there, and to 10.

10. Tell the truth, show the truth – the old maxim about the ‘camera never lying’ – it doesn’t need to lie, but it can easily show only part of the story. I watched James Mates of ITV march alongside a peaceful Ukrainian march headed by violent extremists, in Donetsk. His camera chose not to show any of the extremists, describe the entire march as ‘peaceful’.

What Mates showed –

What he didn’t –

Your intention as a journalist, in fact what you live for, should always be showing the whole story, the whole truth.

Bonus – 

Never give up. If you’re a good journalist, doing work to expose truths, those for whom the truth is an enemy will do whatever they can to stop you – abuse, threats, I’ve even had a harassment letter served against me by the chief suspect in a murder investigation – something then thrown back in abuse.

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Don’t let any of that stop you, or even discourage you. On the opposite, embrace it, let it make you a stronger, better journalist. You may get actual awards as a journalist, you will surely also get kind words, but the attacks of people afraid of your work, doing what they can to stop the truth getting out, is its own form of award.

One thought on “My 10 Pieces of Advice on Being a Journalist”

  1. Great and such a simple advices. How do you think, why do a lot of people know what should they do but still don’t doing it? I thing, there is some who became journalist just for money and because of narcissism.


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