The Making of a Good Journalist
I am often asked to help design educational programs. Usually the requests come from individuals who have found the theory of multiple intelligences to be appealing and want to apply it with one or another population (e.g. how to assess the intelligences of middle school children and create an appropriate curriculum). Less frequently, though still often, the request reflects an interest in building on the work that my colleagues and I have carried out under the aegis of The Good Project (e.g. how to encourage cooperation among high schools students). Only rarely have those individuals who have approached me sought ways in which to combine MI thinking and approaches with insights and suggestions from The Good Project. And so when a request arrived to do just that—from a school of journalism in Argentina—it got me thinking.
My first thoughts centered on what intellectual capacities are important for a journalist-in-training. Newspaper, magazine, and media journalists deal with words—and so having a well-honed linguistic intelligence is crucial. Indeed, when a television personality simply reads the news stories off of a teleprompter, I consider that action to be “reading” and “performing”—not journalism. Journalists typically have to form relations with individuals—those whom they are covering, those whom they are interviewing—and so interpersonal intelligence is also vital. Nowadays, much of journalism also entails mastery of visual media, as in hosting and curating websites, and this new requirement draws on spatial intelligence.
Depending on what topics you cover, other intelligences come into play. And so, for example, if you are a business or finance journalist, your logical-mathematical intelligence needs to be honed. Or if you cover athletics or dance, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is relevant and at a premium.
Of course, no journalist can be expected to have all of these intelligences developed to a high degree. This Is where collaboration or division of labor become important. But one can also enhance an intelligence by exercising it. Journalists who are assigned to a new beat may find that initially they lack the relevant intelligence, but there is no reason why they can’t develop it. If I can use a personal example, my naturalist intelligence is quite underdeveloped. But if I were assigned to cover food and restaurants, I presumably could strengthen that form of intelligence… hopefully not gaining too much weight in the process!
So far I have been talking about the skills that one needs to be a journalist—particularly a journalist who can turn out effective “copy” on various topics. But that is not equivalent to being a good journalist. In our conceptualization at The Good Project, the good journalist must be a professional. She must understand and seek to embody the principal values of journalism: carrying out thorough research, making sure that all sides of a story are covered, sticking closely to the facts, and, perhaps most importantly, not tilting the story in a certain direction because of one’s own personal preferences or biases. The phrase that I favor is being a “disinterested professional,” in the sense of not letting one’s own personal interests color the way that one covers a story.
How one becomes more than just a journalist but a good journalist is not easy. It certainly helps to have good values from home or from one’s early education—be it religious or secular. But the crucial time for developing the professional stance is during one’s training—at school, on internships, and on the first job. Crucial here are role models who embody the professional stance, who can talk about it in words, and who demonstrate how they deal with complex ethical situations, admit when they erred, and strive to do better the next time.
It has never been easy to become a good professional or a good journalist. Indeed, until the 20th century, the idea of a professional journalist had not been much developed. There was perhaps a “golden age” of journalism after the Second World War—particularly in Western Europe and in North America. But since the advent of digital media, the 24/7 news cycle, the desire for ever-bigger financial profits, and public lust for gossip and disinclination to pay for thorough, objective coverage, it has become even more difficult to carry out good journalism.
And yet, if professional journalism were to disappear from our world society, that would be a tragedy. We depend on journalists to remove the bravura surrounding persons and institutions and to help us understand what is actually going on. In the absence of such dedicated professionals, we are left with rumor, innuendo, and indeed complete lies, or “truthiness”—naïve belief in what one has heard before, without any sense of whether it has actually been verified. Ultimately, some groups would have to reinvent journalism in some form. But it makes much more sense to preserve its essential components, while adapting it to present conditions.
And in that mission, MI theory can be very helpful. Recognition of our multiple intelligences not only provides many more roles in journalism. It also opens the possibility that individuals can acquire news from many different media and modalities. And since we live a global, hyper-connected world, these avenues of communication hold the potential of delivering news of high quality to the population of the world.