4 types of journalists: How they tick and what we can learn from them
Nine years ago, when I was working full-time for Poynter, my colleagues and I took the Myers-Briggs test during a team retreat.* I hadn't heard of the test at the time, and aside from light Psych 101-ish readings during college, I had never learned much about the Jungian theories it was based on.
Candidly, my first reaction to the test was pretty dismissive; I considered the results about as useful as a horoscope. But as my colleagues and I talked about our findings, I was increasingly swayed by the very basic -- but very important -- truth at the heart of the exercise: We each interact with and respond to the world in deeply different ways, and it's crucial to consider those differences as we interact with and respond to one another. If we understand each other better, we can work together more effectively.
Like I said, basic stuff. But I'm reminded of this basic realization very often as I work with many different journalists from a variety of newsrooms. I've found myself developing my own vocabulary to describe what motivates and inhibits the journalists I encounter. As this vocabulary has become more concrete in my mind, I thought it might be valuable to share it.
But first, some disclaimers: these are types, not hard-and-fast roles -- bell curves, not buckets. Every good journalist can tap into any of these attributes, even if they incline toward one in particular. And different circumstances require different approaches; our foremost thought when doing journalism should be serving the public interest, not indulging our inclinations.
Recognizing those inclinations, however, is valuable. There are multiple ways of approaching any subject. Acknowledging our passions and pitfalls can help us do better work, allowing us to both play to our strengths and play against type when the situation merits it. So here they are, the four types of journalists I've encountered and what I've observed about them:
Primary motivation: Connecting people to each other and to issues that matter in their lives.
Patron saints: Michael Lewis, Lane DeGregory
Best compliment: "What a powerful lede."
Strengths: Storytellers render dull material vivid, making broccoli taste like s'mores. In the hands of this journalist, even a mundane City Council meeting becomes a font of whimsy and intrigue. I'd argue this type of journalism has the most general appeal; almost anyone can relate to a good story. Plus, great stories and their characters and themes are likely to stick with you long after the facts themselves have faded from memory -- handy fodder for your next cocktail party. I suspect most journalists fall into this type.
Potential pitfalls: Reality has a way of defying classical narrative conventions. As Tyler Cowen has argued eloquently, our zeal for stories can blind us to underlying empirical trends that are ultimately more important. We tend to turn political races, for example, into grand dramatic clashes between near-mythic characters with tragic, indelible flaws. But very often, the dynamics of a political race are mundane, driven by a complex mix of circumstances that a good story might obscure or oversimplify. If you need any more convincing about the dangers of stories, read Aaron Bady's masterful essay connecting Jimmy McNulty, #Kony2012 and Mike Daisey.
Primary motivation: Exposing facts that are hidden or unknown.
Patron saints: David Rogers, Renee Ferguson
Best compliment: "You landed a huge scoop."
Strengths: Newshounds possess a relentless curiosity and drive that helps them constantly uncover new facts. Most investigative journalists probably lean in this direction. Although news is often a commodity in the age of Twitter, anyone who is regularly the first source of new information on a topic is likely to garner a large, loyal and influential audience.
Potential pitfalls: News has a tendency of crowding out context. We give outsized focus to novel information at the expense of known facts that might help us legitimately understand an issue better. At its worst, this tendency pushes us to gobble an everlasting stream of trivia without ever attending to the truly significant dynamics of a story.
The Systems Analyst
Primary motivation: Understanding the world and explaining it clearly.
Patron saints: David Leonhardt, Gina Kolata
Best compliment: "You helped me get the issue for the first time."
Strengths: Systems Analysts have a gift for sniffing out root causes, key trends and important patterns that underpin a story. They prize themselves on cultivating genuine expertise, knowledge of a subject that lasts far beyond a news cycle. That degree of authority can inspire a loyal audience, as folks find themselves coming back again and again to get the journalist's take on news developments.
Potential pitfalls: It can be difficult to write about systemic patterns in ways that are accessible to general audiences. Systems Analysts constantly have to be vigilant about not convening a conversation solely for wonks and insiders. They often have to fight against a tendency to focus on broad, empirical understanding without capturing the individual experiences that bring out the nuances in the data. It also takes time to foster deep, genuine understanding of a subject; the metabolism of that process cuts against the demands of the continuous news cycle.
Primary motivation: Revealing the many complex facets of the world.
Patron saints: Malcolm Gladwell, Bethany McLean
Best compliment: "That's a fascinating insight I'd never thought of before."
Strengths: Provocateurs surface distinctive ideas and angles, disrupting the natural tendency of media types to exhibit herd behavior. They spur us to think in new ways about a topic or to identify emerging trends or patterns that are worth keeping an eye on. They savor the feeling of covering an issue no one else has drawn attention to, or reporting on an angle nobody's pursued yet. Provocateurs are particularly good at posing questions, poking at conventional wisdom in a way that encourages us to think critically about it.
Potential pitfalls: Originality ≠ insight. The desire for a fresh take can push a journalist into being pointlessly contrarian or spotting trends that don't exist. Provocateurs have to be careful not to make too much out of outliers and exceptions. They also face the danger of latching onto an undercovered story in a way that alienates the public rather than drawing people in.
In case this exercise itself didn't give me away, I'm a Systems Analyst, through and through. While I love a good story or a fresh take, I tend to think in frameworks, and I most value journalism that gives me a comprehensive understanding of its subject. I often have to keep that orientation in check when I work with different types of journalists, pushing myself to get a sense of what they value most and keeping that in mind as we collaborate.
After we took our Myers-Briggs tests, my Poynter colleagues and I each got a workbook to help us interpret our results. It included this analogy: "Think of your choices as somewhat like being right- or left-handed. Both hands are valuable, but most people reach first with the hand they prefer. They usually use that hand more and become more skillful with that hand. In the same way, your type preferences are choices between equally valuable and useful qualities."
At the risk of sounding a bit too Pollyannaish, I think that philosophy is just right. Every one of these types is capable of producing great journalism and poor journalism. I suspect the best journalism most often arises when journalists with different inclinations mix and work together. Perhaps you recognize the types I've identified here, and perhaps you've found entirely different ones. Maybe you find this about as useful as a fortune cookie. But if anything in this exercise resonates with you, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
* I tested as an ENTP ("Extraversion, Intuition, Thinking, Perceiving").