Journalism Lessons from Tim Russert

Journalism Lessons from Tim Russert

Recently I was reminiscing about a great experience I had hearing the late Tim Russert speak at Boston College back in 2005.  Tim Russert gave accounts of his most memorable interviews, his political ploys, and endearing tales of his father from his book, Big Russ.  His comments were very inspiring and helpful, as he dropped advice for good journalism throughout his stories.

He spoke about how it is extremely important in everything, but especially in journalism, to be prepared and knowledgeable about the issues and your guest, when conducting an interview.  Tim Russert commented on how many politicians have a set script that they recite to the media of their stance on the issues, but this script can also be vague and leave out important points.  Tim Russert’s job was to pick out these points and corner his guest into giving an answer, oftentimes, an answer he or she didn’t want to give.  This, he said, is part of a journalist’s responsibility to their audience.  A journalist must attempt to get all the facts and as much information as he or she can because knowledge is a power to which everyone has the right.

Among all these facts, however, it is sometimes hard to see the big picture.  Tim Russert acknowledged this difficulty, but said it is important to speak to the big issues and not get caught up in all the tiny details.  He said that law school really helped him acquire this skill, which he was able to use to help educate his audience.

In addition to seeing the main issue, Russert said it’s up to the journalist to determine which issues are news worthy.  Understanding your audience is an important factor in this decision because what may seem news worthy to you may not be as relevant to your viewers.  A journalist must show people why that subject is worth learning something about, all the while being completely objective.  It is not a journalist’s job to tell people what to believe, but rather, to tell people the facts and allow them to make up their own minds on the issue.

In dealing with politics and politicians on Meet the Press, Tim Russert had to not only be objective, but bipartisan as well, no matter which political party he represented.  Being objective and bipartisan are two limitations of a journalist that he talked a lot about, but there are ethical limitations as well.  A journalist must take into account how a story will affect his or her audience.  Based on good judgment, a journalist must decide if a story would negatively or positively affect the quality of life of the audience.

A journalist gains an audience based, in part, on his or her credibility and one would think that if a mistake is made, the journalist’s credibility would diminish.  However, Tim Russert assed that a mistake can only be detrimental to ones credibility if it is not dealt with properly.  He advised that journalists and networks should admit to their mistakes immediately and offer an apology saying it would never happen again and that this kind of statement can actually increase ones credibility by making them seem more human and humble.

Tim Russert’s insights into the world of journalism captivated his audience while providing information about his profession and all the things he has to take into consideration when preparing for an episode of Meet the Press.  He was a fabulous speaker and even better journalist, one I count myself lucky to have had the pleasure to meet while he was still living.

Definitions From Questions, It’s All In How You Ask

Definitions From Questions, It’s All In How You Ask

Last night, I attended a lecture given by Jim Fleming, S.J. at the Boston College Club on the results of a recently completed survey about the religiousness and spirituality of students at BC.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to get on my soap box and preach about religion, but what I did find interesting is how some of the questions were posed.

Instead of defining the two terms, religion and spirituality, up front and then asking the students how they perceive themselves in light of those definitions, they worked the other way around.  The survey asked the students how religious and spiritual they thought they were, without defining the terms, and then used the rest of the questions to go back and define the two words.

To use another example to illustrate this process, let’s say a PR firm wanted to conduct a survey on what transparency means in social media.  Without defining transparency upfront, the survey would ask how transparent the respondents think their actions are in social media and use the subsequent questions to see how industry professionals would define the term.  So, if a respondent said they considered themselves to be very transparent, and then answered the following questions:

Based on these responses, the firm conducting the survey can asses that transparency in social media can be defined as someone who reveals their true identity, writes their own material under their name, does not have a ghost writer, and reveals when they are talking about one of their clients.

While the answers to these questions may seem obvious, there is great potential here to glean far more insight into the actual practices people conduct in their everyday lives and see how it relates to the broader question.  It’s validating the “practice what you preach” methodology.

Another way to look at it is that maybe “transparency,” or whatever term you’re evaluating, is not the correct word.  Perhaps someone thinks they are not very transparent in their social media activities, but answered in the same way as the respondent in the questions above, which are clearly transparent actions.  Is there a reason such respondents would shy away from the term transparent, or could there be more indicators of what makes a person’s social media actions transparent?  Recognizing these trends as a participant in the survey is also very interesting and makes people more self aware of their own actions.  Maybe this would give such a respondent the opportunity to say, “Oh, I guess I am transparent in social media.”

It’s all about how you ask the question…