Wick Communications

Lessons learned over long career

In journalism on 28 Jun 2013 at 7:30 am

Carl Sessions Stepp, interviewing some guy with a sweaty upper lip.

Carl Sessions Stepp is one of the giants of our business. He’s been a journalist since 1963 and is currently on the journalism faculty at the University of Maryland. He is also a contributor to the American Journalism Review, and has published a list of 50 things he has learned in 50 years in the news business.

You can find all those lessons right here and I guarantee you will nod along with him. You should stop what you are doing and scroll through his 50 lessons.

He suggests you get out of the office more, resist equivocation and leave time for revision. Heck, “The Tricycle Principal” alone is reason to scan through the list.

One of my favorites is this: “Respect readers – but not too much.” Here’s Stepp:

I have found readers of all stripes to be thoughtful citizens, discerning customers, eager devourers of the stuff Ray Suarez of “PBS NewsHour” has called “the beams and floorboards of our common life.”

Readers also can be … uninformed, prejudiced, unpleasant and unpleasable. Just reading a few “comments” pages demonstrates all that.

One of the trickiest parts of journalism is balancing the need to respect readers with the duty to help enlighten them. We shouldn’t be arrogant about this. Journalists aren’t any smarter than anyone else. But our job is to cater to their natural interest in the world without pandering to the uglier impulses. …

Isn’t that well said, particularly that last sentence? We can’t do anything about the uglier impulses of some readers, but we can and must cater to their natural interest in the world around them. I think that is sage advice for anyone reporting on anything controversial.

Take, for instance, this week’s Supreme Court decision over the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8. Any time you write about same-sex marriage you are going to anger about 70 percent of your audience. Those on either side of the debate will think you are leaning left or right, because their own view of reality is skewed by their own leanings. Our job is to appeal to that native curiosity – about the people who think gay marriage is an abomination before god, about the people who thumb their noses at any religious intervention in the law of the land and about all of us in between.

Forget something as polarizing as same-sex marriage; you probably have land-use issues in your community that folks have elevated into moral crusades. You aren’t going to appease these people with your coverage. Take Stepp’s advice. Appeal to readers’ curiosity and you are doing your job.


  1. Real good first hand stuff. Funny how most of it feels so obvious. I think the two most important items where, get out of the office and shut up and listen when interviewing. These two points are the biggest mistakes reporters make. Thanks the 50 points were worth the read time.

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