The Metaskills of Journalism
by Gerald Grow, Ph.D .
Professor, Florida A&M University (1985-2009)
Every profession is based on both skills and metaskills. Skills are the activities people have to perform well– like reporting, writing, attributing quotes properly and avoiding libel. Metaskills are higher-order skills that enable journalists to use their skills effectively. Metaskills — such as critical thinking– are what make the skills effective. Without metaskills, skills are like a hammer in the hands of a child.
Journalism education programs agree widely on the basic skills of the profession, but the metaskills are so seldom discussed that there is no agreement on what they are, how to teach them, or whether students are learning them.
Students sometimes ask why they need to study so hard, when much of what they learn will become obsolete. The answer points to the meaning of “metaskill.” Though students will have to re-learn many skills, it is only through learning skills that they can learn the metaskills. Even if the skills become obsolete, the metaskills empower students to continue to update their skills. By learning skills that will become obsolete, students can learn metaskills that endure.
This paper considers a list of metaskills in relation the practice of journalism, in order to open a discussion on metaskills and how to teach them.
Clarity is the ability to give attention, and to give it when needed. It means always having access to a clear channel in the mind. Clarity is the skill that underlies all efforts at research and reporting, for without clarity, you look at the world and see either yourself reflected back, or a muddled haze.
Ideal clarity means seeing without preconceptions, without agendas, without filters, without interpretations. It means just being there, and being there fully, with all the skills and purposes of a journalist.
Curiosity is the active form of clarity, the form that asks, that goes out and looks, that returns for a second look.
Another aspect of clarity leads to openness, to freshness of perception, to the ability to recognize that no two things are ever alike, no two people ever do the same things. This is the clarity of innocence.
To maintain clarity, journalists have to renew their ability to see–to see doubly as both adult and child; to see at once in the full context of everything you have ever known, and yet to see as if for the first time, anew.
Clarity can cause problems, because journalists see so many difficult things, all the hard realities of human life on this earth. Journalists have to live with what they see.
Journalists have to live with what they learn. Unless they anticipate this need, they may find that the very clarity of vision that makes good journalists also leads them toward cynicism, irony, disillusion, detachment, or an empty relativism. Like medical students, journalists may go through a spiritual crisis as they learn more about human beings than they can assimilate. Few other people have to know so much–especially so many bad things–about being human. Few other people are exposed hour after hour to tragedy, disaster, loss, betrayal, murder, robbery, rape, death, exploitation, decrepitude, ineptness, and suffering.
Seeing too much too clearly easily leads to a world-weary attitude. Journalists may oscillate between an aloof superiority from which they criticize, and the grimy guilt that comes from turning their pitiless honesty upon their own imperfect selves.
Clarity needs another metaskill to manage it. Compassion can help sustain and renew the task of repeatedly seeing oneself and others in the nakedness of truth. Compassion begins with the deep and repeated awareness of one’s own web of self-delusion and imperfection, learning to look upon one’s lumpiness gently, kindly. From this self-kindness, one can learn to look upon others kindly–not ignoring anything, not softening their failures, not ignoring their destructiveness.
Seeing it all, seeing it clearly, seeing it from the perspective of the other person, and feeling compassion. Compassion requires clear seeing, and clarity of vision can be sustained through compassion.
Clarity and compassion bring the danger that, in seeing all, one will be tempted to forgive all. By themselves, clarity and compassion tend toward an all-seeing, all-forgiving perspective that can be grounded only by a keen sense of standards in life.
Journalists are sworn to principles of accuracy and fairness. They are committed to going beyond clarity and exposing what they find, no matter where it leads. In an ethic similar to that of the scientist, journalists are committed to the truth as their methods reveal it and as their media permit its expression. They uphold the freedom of expression for themselves and for everyone. They subject everyone’s free expressions to the same scrutiny–including their own. You could call it honor.
Clarity and compassion tend to a life of reflection; those metaskills make a difference in the world only when they are impelled into action by someone who is committed to high standards yet has the courage to act–which means, the courage to be imperfect, the courage to fail. In this world, the only people who fail are those who do things. Journalists act, and they act imperfectly–again and again, committed to a cumulative, self-correcting body of work that, within its constraints, strives for integrity.
In our multidimensional world, few things have simple meanings. It is rarely enough to learn the facts of an event, because meaning comes only when the event is placed in a context. Journalists do not always have the obligation, or the luxury, of placing things in context. Their day to day job is to report events, not to interpret them.
Yet the day to day job of readers is to interpret events, and in this task readers need help. One of the crucial roles of journalism is to equip readers to bring to the news contexts that make sense out of the news. Most journalism seems to presume that readers will pick up such contexts on their own, but, increasingly, journalism recognizes that readers need reminders, summaries, maps, histories, explanations, definitions, biographies, theories, and other tools with which to place important events in richly useful contexts that help readers understand life. Events do not explain themselves. Journalists can help readers through articles that try to make sense out of the world–analysis, commentary, and background. Opinion pieces can be valuable–but chiefly those pieces that do not focus on the opinion of the writer, but rather help equip readers to form their own opinions on complex issues.
In order for journalists to help readers by providing context, journalists must themselves learn enough to bring context to the news. This means continuously working to understand how to understand this world. To do this, journalists need more opportunities to consider, reflect, integrate–and to write reflectively. Reflecting on the meaning of events, bringing perspective–these are the essential skills of context.
Even clarity, compassion, commitment and context are not enough to deal with the repetitiveness of journalism–the endless, day by day production of reports, one after the other, in the same small number of formats, with the same small vocabulary, in the same limited range of music and voice.
The crucial metaskill here is creativity.
To keep from becoming dulled in their perception and writing, journalists need to take things in deeply enough that they are no longer manufacturing their work out of the ordinary tools of consciousness. They need to be able to tap the creative mind, to feed it material and to learn to listen to what it does what that material. Creativity is intimately tied not only with inventiveness, but with freshness, with the ability to see things like a grown-up child–with”clarity.”
But creativity brings its own kind of strain. The incessant newness of news, combined with the dulling sameness of news, stresses anyone’s ability to find fresh ways to say what you have already said a hundred times.
Journalism is a particularly demanding profession, one that constantly pulls journalists away from themselves, thrusting them into the lives of others, yanking them out again, and thrusting them elsewhere.
Only by having one’s own life to live, and living it simply and whole-heartedly, can one bear the burden of clarity, compassion, commitment, context and creativity. To use these skills, one must also be able to turn them off, trust, and just let life happen.
There has to be a place where one can stop being a journalist and just be a person. Journalists need a life outside of work. This can be difficult, because when journalists become members of the community, they come to know and love the very people about whom they may later have to report difficult truths.
They may find that friends are reluctant to be candid with them for fear their words will appear in the paper. People may try to manipulate their views in order to advance their own, or to hide something. They may always wonder when they are seeing people as they are and when people are acting with the journalist as their audience.
So that they won’t be whirled away by the pace of the profession, the sameness of method, the incessant quest for the scoop, the repetitive frenzy of so much of journalism, journalists need to know how to center. They need to know how to nourish their own lives–for the task of the journalist and the task of the reader are essentially the same: How to live with what we know so that we act more humanely in the world.
Clarity, compassion, commitment, context, creativity, and centering: Six metaskills that journalism depends on. If you are a journalism student, look for ways to cultivate these. If you are a journalism teacher, look for ways to teach them.
Gerald Grow’s home page