Four magazine writers gave aspiring reporters career advice and criticized coverage of the 2004 election at a Thursday panel discussion sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists. They advised the 40 students in attendance to avoid being overly political in their writing and dispensed career tips.
Some of the journalists had covered this year’s election and felt that media coverage focused too much on the election as a “horse race,” or which candidate was ahead at the moment, and not enough on the issues.
Congressional Quarterly’s political editor, Bob Benenson, said journalists were too often “viewing the debate on the issues through the prism of strategy,” emphasizing candidates’ attacks on each other instead of substance.
Ryan Lizza, the New Republic’s White House correspondent, said it was easier to cover this election as a horse race because it was so “marked by candidates’ outrageous accusations” and constant attempts to outdo one another in rhetoric.
He said the best way to steer clear of unfair coverage is to write with a broad perspective.
“The media and campaigns have their own language,” Lizza said. “It’s easy to get caught up in that and it becomes so insidery and so incomprehensible.”
At the same time, he said maintaining a good relationship with sources can be hard for editors at the New Republic because “we write mean things about people.”
While “writing for your sources” makes journalists look bad, writing for a specific audience is expected at many national magazines, the panelists said.
People magazine’s Washington bureau chief, Linda Kramer, said her magazine’s New York editors often disapprove of stories they find too important or “too inside-the-Beltway.” She said they would rather see more stories about Ben Affleck and other Hollywood stars.
“People is more driven by what people want to know, not what they need to know,” Kramer said. She said editors are often told they are being “too dutiful” and not interesting enough when they send in political stories, such as a recent one about Attorney General John Ashcroft’s resignation.
Dan Gilgoff, a 2001 GW graduate who works at U.S. News and World Report, said he gets frustrated that the magazine requires reporters to spend much of their time explaining simple facts to readers in their stories.
“Sometimes, as a reporter, it’s really demoralizing,” he said, and added that it often kills the opportunity to write a better story.
The journalists gave students advice about getting jobs and internships in the field, agreeing that employers don’t care about major or GPA, only about writing experience. Gilgoff, who wrote for The Hatchet and later had internships at the Washington City Paper and Congressional Quarterly, said internships are important because they distinguish an applicant from everyone else.
Students at the panel said it helped to listen to the journalists’ experiences about their careers.
“I think it’s helpful because you’re getting a real sense for the field,” junior Eric Correira said.
SPJ Treasurer Brian Weiss said panels are an opportunity for students to meet some of the most renowned journalists in the country and that many find contacts that help them get jobs or internships.
At panels, “They love talking to you,” he said. “They give you their phone numbers and e-mails.”