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On Tuesday, PBS NewsHour’s chief correspondent for arts and culture Jeffrey Brown addressed questions from journalism students in a Facebook chat. Questions ranged from the best educational path to follow to value of blogging and how to navigate censorship.
Brown advised students not to specialize too young, and emphasized the value of a varied education to inform journalists’ reporting later in life. He also spoke of his love for literature and the arts, and how it is possible to make a well-covered story new again by reporting through a cultural lens–something that Brown does regularly in his “Culture at Risk” series. In response to a student who asked Brown to identify “the best” moment in his career, Brown wrote, “Don’t worry about ‘best’ moments or best jobs right now. Focus on building a life and career and see where it takes you. Most likely to unexpected places.”
Read additional excerpts from this Q&A below, and stay tuned for information about the next chat in our series of Facebook chats for journalism students.
Editor’s note: The following excerpts have been edited lightly for grammar and clarity.
Juliana Taylor: What was your first big break into journalism?
Jeffrey Brown: I started late – and maybe there’s a lesson there for all of you late bloomers. I took my time getting through college. I didn’t even think about journalism until my mid-20s. My first job was doing the ‘listings’ for an alternative weekly in San Francisco. But at some point I got an idea in my head: I wanted to cover the Supreme Court and I wanted to do it for the New York Times. Okay, it was a BIG idea. I went to law school, not to practice law but to learn law. (I never finished law school, by the way, but that’s another story.) At the Columbia Journalism School I met Fred Friendly, a legend in broadcast journalism history and, at that time, running his own production company while teaching at Columbia. First big break in journalism? I’ll go with: meeting Fred and having the opportunity to work with him. That started me on the path.
Betty AkaShannon Stevens: Thank you for this wonderful opportunity! As the faculty advisor for CSU Signal, a student newspaper in California’s central valley, my students often want to know which is better: continuing to write, edit and produce for the college paper for academic credit or take a low-paying job at a local, small-town news outlet. What are your thoughts?
Jeffrey Brown: This is a question that comes up all the time with young people I meet, including those who come to the NewsHour to work in our desk assistant program. A variation on the theme is whether it makes more sense to attend journalism school or to get right into the workplace. There’s really no one answer. I’d insist on one key point: Write! Write and write. That’s before you think about ‘television’ or ‘web’ or whatever medium you’re going to work in. The main thing is to learn to organize your facts and thoughts into a coherent story. I promise you that this will help in whatever you end up doing.
To answer your question with another question: Where will you get the best chance to learn to do that? I see college as a place to learn. Learn about the world, learn things that will help your journalism work, whether directly or indirectly. Take classes in subjects that interest you and try things you may not be interested in. That is to say, I prefer the idea of taking non-journalism classes while in college and writing for the college paper.
Lisa Kaplan: Is there a “best” educational path for prospective college freshman seeking to study journalism (i.e. liberal arts foundation vs. journalism school)?
Jeffrey Brown: There’s an easy answer to this: No! But I don’t mean to be glib in responding to you. Ask every journalist you meet about his or her educational background. You’ll hear some interesting responses. Mine might be a highly unusual one. My undergraduate degree was in classics. Ancient Greek! As you might imagine, this doesn’t come up very often in the stories I cover every day. And yet I’m so grateful for that grounding. It taught me about rigor, about really digging into something, about looking for larger contexts of history, thought, literature and ideas that lurk behind so much of what we deal with in the news.
Is a degree in journalism the way to go? It can be. Many wonderful journalists have taken that route. My own advice, though, would be to use college to expose yourself to as many things as you can, very much including the humanities and liberal arts. It will help you throughout your life and career in unexpected ways.
John Bauer: Thank you for taking the time to do this! Is starting your own blog or finding lesser known sources who will publish your work a good thing to do for someone looking to get into journalism?
Jeffrey Brown: I would think that anything you do along those lines is only going to help, though it may not necessarily lead to a job directly. you have to give yourself ways to learn and experience the practice of journalism. See an earlier answer: You have to learn to write, to gather facts and organize them into a coherent story. Doing that on your own blog is partly about creating a venue for yourself. And, yes, it also shows initiative to a prospective employer. The idea of ‘lesser known sources’ is an interesting one, especially if it becomes a way for you to bring a particular area of interest or knowledge to your work. Whether you’re interested in covering the environment or a particular type of music or a region of the world, find a way to bring something of ‘you’ to it. Thanks for your question.
Molly Meeker: Thank you for taking time to answer our questions! What is a piece of advice you have for an aspiring travel journalist? What educational programs do you suggest pursuing in order to open opportunities?
Jeffrey Brown: Well, that’s an interesting question. I’ve never been a ‘travel journalist’ but I’m certainly a ‘travelling journalist.’ It seems to me the educational programs would be the same: You have to learn about the world to know where to look and who to talk to when reporting. Knowing the history of a place helps you understand its situation today. A country’s economy should interest you even if, in the end, you’re just recommending the best value hotels. Do you want to write about coral reefs in the Pacific? It would help to know something about biology and ocean and plant life. I myself love to read fiction and whenever I travel anywhere for work I try to read literature from that place. I like the insight it provides, whether or not it ends up directly in the story I’m working on. (As I’ve written in a previous answer, I also love to interview writers and artists in my travels.) And, by the way, I love it when travel journalists include that kind of cultural knowledge and even recommend writers and artists in their stories. I would also tell you, though, that the principles of good reporting apply — or should apply — whether you’re covering a local election at city hall or a surfing contest in Maui. Thank you, Molly, and good luck.
Tyree Johnson: Are you an archaeologist ?
Jeffrey Brown: No, but I play one on TV. I’m joking. I am not an archaeologist, no. But I do love history, literature, ideas and studying old things. In a previous answer I explained that I was a classics major in college. In recent years I’ve found a great way to pursue these interests, including archaeology, in a series I’ve been reporting around the world called “Culture at Risk.” It looks at art, artifacts, buildings, even whole cities that are at risk from war, development, climate change, changing aesthetic tastes and more. It’s a way of looking ‘behind’ the front page, if you will. That is, we might report on the war in Syria, but through the lens of its impact on historic sites. Another example: I was recently at several remarkable archaeological sites in northern Peru and it was a chance, in part, to look at the impact of climate change.
Are you an archaeologist? And want to be a journalist? I’d say, go for it.
Hanno van der Bijl: How do you deal with censorship? I wrote an article for a trade magazine recently where two quotes I included were censored because people in the industry would get upset. I just went along with it. Was that wrong of me?
Jeffrey Brown: I think I’d need to know more about the publication you work for and the article you wrote. Were you taken by surprise? Did you have a good talk with your editor before you ‘went along with it’? My advice would be to try first to understand the thinking behind whatever action was taken then make your arguments if you think the action was wrong.
I’m often asked about potential interference or censorship by one or another of our funders at the NewsHour — public funds, corporations, foundations. I’m happy to say I’ve never experienced that. We have very strict guidelines when it comes to that and wouldn’t accept interference.
Rachel Toalson: What, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge when finding/writing your stories and how do you overcome that challenge?
Jeffrey Brown: Thank you, Rachel. It’s not a challenge to find stories, generally. They’re everywhere. The bigger problem is choosing which stories to report. (I’m not talking, of course, about the big headline stories that we MUST cover.) There are very practical factors that come into play: resources, time, how many stories can fit onto a particular program and more. But some of it is just going with your gut — What really grabs you? What story do you find compelling enough to want to tell your audience? Maybe the more interesting challenge, though, is how to know when you’ve ‘got’ the story, when you know enough or have told it well enough? I’m not sure anyone ever gets past that feeling of doubt or the desire to report and tell more. But this is why deadlines (and editors) were invented! You overcome the challenge — that is, you finish the story — because you must.
Breanna Walker: What was the best moment in your career as a journalist?
Jeffrey Brown: Thank you for your question, Breanna. I can’t give you one ‘best’ moment. I can tell you that a very fulfilling and fascinating part of my job has been to travel to different places and look at the news through the eyes and voices of writers, musicians and other artists. It’s a different window on the world and one that we rarely get exposed to. It’s also allowed me to meet many remarkable people. Another best part (as opposed to ‘moment’) of my career is going behind the scenes at events. Again, this often involves the arts — being backstage at the theater and seeing all the work that goes into a performance. But I also have to tell you that there are ways to find satisfaction even in the everyday-ness of doing the ‘daily news’. My advice to you, if you’re just setting out: Don’t worry about ‘best’ moments or best jobs right now. Focus on building a life and career and see where it takes you. Most likely to unexpected places.
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