Universal Journalist – David Randall, Pluto Press (2021)

Universal Journalist – David Randall, Pluto Press (2021)

A ‘how-to’ guide for journalism, this book covers topics from handling quotes to online research. The book’s author, David Randall (former assistant editor of The Observer), chronicles the 'universals' of good journalistic practice and outlines the pitfalls of inaccurate reporting and rushed judgement.

It’s an engaging read, with instructive anecdotes about the world’s best reporters. After a mass shooting in New Jersey in 1949, for instance, New York Times’s Meyer Berger spent just ten hours interviewing over 50 witnesses and then writing 4,000 words – not one of which was changed by his editor – for the following day’s edition.

A particularly useful chapter outlines how news stories are conceived. Away from low-hanging fruit like presidential elections and natural disasters, Randall describes how reporters learn to filter their experiences for potential stories.

A knack for persistence is key, “arrive early and hang around afterwards.” Building trust with sources is also important. So too is learning to identify obscure sources for intel, like esoteric magazines and overlooked blogs.

Another section describes gathering information from interviewees. To avoid getting hoodwinked, do plenty of research beforehand. Then, ask simple questions; listen carefully and stop your contributor from rambling, if necessary.

When at last the writing process begins, avoid editing responses. Even if direct quotes are ungrammatical, the reporter’s role is to a get verbatim record of what an interviewee said.

In a world where distrust of the mainstream news is proliferating, this book demonstrates that good journalism requires an ever-changing set of skills. Reporters should be equally comfortable dealing with spin doctors as they are with datasets.

But despite the radical changes wrought by the internet, Randall provides a salutary reminder that the core principles of reliable journalism remain universal.

5 useful tips:

·       Before starting an article, ask yourself “what is the strongest news point I can make?”

·       Introductions should be self-contained, and should not depend for their sense on the second paragraph

·       Keep a story ideas file

·       The place to show your ignorance is when conducting interviews

·       Part of a reporter’s job is getting people to want to help you, so be friendly, interested and honest