In The Incredulity of St Thomas (1601-1602), Caravaggio depicts a Bible story which takes place a week or so after Jesus' execution. The resurrected Christ had by then revealed himself to some of his followers, but when Thomas, a disciple who had not yet seen his risen master, hears the news he is skeptical. Thomas says: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
A week later Jesus appears to Thomas, inviting the doubter to cure his incredulity by touching the wounds of the crucifixion. Reaching into a hole left in Jesus’ side by a Roman spear, Thomas now believes.
Jesus, however, then scolds this more rational of his followers, saying: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
As budding journalism practitioners, we must respectfully disagree with Christ.
Thomas was right to be skeptical; it is Thomas’ attitude, not Christ's, that we should emulate.
We must expect to be lied to, misled, manipulated, fed inaccurate and biased stories, and denied crucial information. Sometimes this will be deliberate and purposeful, while at other times the people impeding our pathways to true, honest, and potent reporting will be acting unconsciously, ideologically, out of faulty memories, a tendency to exaggerate, or simply in keeping with a widespread disregard for detail and accuracy.
Hence, our task is to seek and assess evidence. It is to lay eyes and hands and cameras on physical evidence whenever possible, and to retain a practical, forensic skepticism of people’s accounts of what happened, especially second or third-hand accounts, etc. Our role requires us to conduct probing interviews with multiple witnesses to, or participants in, whatever events we report.
Recognizing that people who are participants in the stories we report will express distorted, partisan, or incomplete perspectives on the matter at hand, we must often also seek the more objective views of appropriate independent experts.
So be respectful and sensitive, but maintain your skepticism. Along with logical and critical thinking, skepticism is an essential quality. And always ask to see the wounds (or at least the verifiable medical records).
This introductory course in reporting teaches skills that are vital for professional communicators and essential for the democratic process. It is a straightforward but exacting course. It offers a vital, stimulating, and practical education for students seeking to work in professional communications.
You will be drilled in undertaking basic, credible reporting that is then expressed in a manner appropriate to the target publication or outlet and its audience.
The essentials include: understanding newsworthiness; finding new and newsworthy stories to tell; using logical and critical thinking in journalism; researching well and finding appropriate sources; interviewing purposefully and effectively; and ultimately writing stories which are verifiable, accurate, fair and honest, compelling, and audience-appropriate.
Furthermore, in keeping with what distinguishes journalism from other branches of the media such as advertising, public relations, and corporate communications, this reporting course teaches the cultivation of insights and skills essential for the democratic process.
Reporting is a quest to bring to light information and perspectives that are of public importance but hitherto unknown or even hidden. Transparency and accountability are hallmarks of the democratic process, as they are of meritocracies.
Hence, this course is geared around the systematic undertaking of that quest. The enemies of this undertaking are legion, whether in Australia or more authoritarian or lawless countries. While it is highly unlikely that students will find themselves in danger due to their assignments (and be sure to alert me if that seems possible), it is routine that students will experience discomfort - often simply by interviewing people that they do not know and asking questions that the interviewees would rather not answer.
Students that do not get out of their comfort zones are unlikely to score highly in the course.
Remember always that this is a Masters course at a well-regarded university; students are expected to think for themselves, exert themselves, and to do so with initiative and intelligence. Students need to be vocal, proactive, persistent, thoughtful, imaginative, flexible, able to cope with uncertainty, decisive, and to show good attention to detail. Students who embrace these qualities are likely to have a good time.
The course can certainly be enjoyable, invigorating and rewarding.
Here are a few tips:
Dr Matt Thompson has taught and motivated bachelor and graduate-level journalism at universities in Australia and the South Pacific for more than a dozen years.
The twin virtues Matt seeks to ignite in students are curiosity and endurance.