Ask a Mentor is a collaboration between J-Source and the Canadian Association of Journalists. The goal of the section is to provide advice to journalists and journalism students who may not have direct access to a mentor or subject matter expert on a particular topic.
Carl Meyer is vice-president of the CAJ's Ottawa chapter and a foreign affairs editor and reporter at Embassy Newspaper. As a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 2008, Meyer has also moderated foreign policy panels, worked for a Parliament Hill tracking service and written for a media analysis publication. Follow him @ottawacarl.
Hi Earvin, thanks for writing in.
Before I get into more tangible tools, I'd suggest the most important element in a journalist's "bag" is the process of critical thinking.
Critical thinking doesn't mean skepticism, although a healthy dose of that is sometimes useful. It means looking past what is presented on the surface, and following not only people's words, but their actions.
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For a journalist out in the field with just his or her bag, it means trying to deconstruct what's been put in place, reverse-engineering how things went down, mapping networks of people and associations and following the money. It means resisting the urge to take information at face value, which is surprisingly difficult when deadlines are looming.
Another important element is a sense of perseverance. Great news stories are told because the reporter has gone beyond the initial news hook or a quick reaction to events. They have dug deeper, talked to more people and uncovered more evidence. They have kept at the story after others have moved on, despite of roadblocks. In the heat of the moment, this means growing thick skin and pressing forward. Put yourself out there and ask tough questions.
As for tangible tools in the bag of a print journalist such as myself, it depends on how far you’re travelling, but the essentials are a voice recorder, a notepad and pen, a phone, your phone charger, spare batteries, cash and ID. Sync your contacts to the cloud so they're not lost if your phone breaks. I also recommend not using your phone as your voice recorder, as good recorders are relatively cheap and available, have great battery life and almost always work. The notepad and pen is for when technology fails, because it will.
I also recommend getting yourself a solid phone, something from the past few years that can load several modern apps at once without crashing. If you’re outside your coverage area, you may also want to look into getting prepaid packages. This will allow you to use GPS and a map app that can help you navigate quickly.
You can also pull up your to-do lists and your calendar if you sync them to your phone, use Internet services like translators or run localized searches on social networks. If you save all your email, news, reports, press releases, audio, photos, video and other files to a cloud service, you can access those from your phone too—great for getting some instant context at events.
Finally, if you can afford it, I would add a camera and a laptop, and their chargers and memory cards to your bag. There are relatively affordable and compact digital cameras and laptops on the market. The camera gets you higher-quality photos or video, and the laptop lets you write and file from more places and provides space to dump files off your recorder and camera. And bring an extension cord, because outlets are never where you want them to be.
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