May 12, 2014

What does a journalist need to know?

What defines “competence” in journalism?

When you graduate from a journalism school, what should you know how to do?

In the digital age, the answers to those questions are more important than ever. For more than three decades now, they have been near the center of conversation and debate at Poynter. Before we could figure out what to teach, we needed to understand – in the public interest – what journalists needed to learn.

This process was energized in 1997 by a call to action from Tom Rosenstiel, one of the leaders of a group called the Committee of Concerned Journalists. Over the next two years, the committee conducted “21 public forums attended by 3,000 people and involving testimony from more than 300 journalists,” according to the book “The Elements of Journalism” by Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach.

Poynter was asked to conduct one of those forums on a most challenging topic: What does it mean to be a competent journalist? And so we did.

In preparation for this conference on Feb. 26, 1998, the Poynter faculty, under my direction, built an edifice we came to call the Pyramid of Competence. This structure comprised 10 blocks. The cornerstones were news judgment and reporting. The foundation also included language and analysis. The central stone was technology, between audio-visual knowledge and numeracy. Closer to the top were civic and cultural literacy. At the apex was ethics.

The pyramid has had an interesting history, inside and outside the institute. Its most serious consideration came from the accrediting council of AEJMC. At a time when the standards for accreditation were under review, leaders such as Trevor Brown, dean at Indiana University, thought the ideas behind the pyramid would lead to a clearer articulation of educational “outcomes,” what students should expect to get out of a journalism education.

Much has changed in the world of journalism since the pyramid was constructed. New media platforms have been invented; business models have collapsed; arguments about who is a journalist abound. Pyramids may be tombs for dead kings, but they have a way of hanging around – for a long time.

What you are about to experience is the most up-to-date version of the Pyramid of Competence. It contains 10 sections, one for each of the competencies. It begins with a description and a definition, followed by a list of imagined courses that could impart that competency, topped off with an example of an essay that could be used to cultivate that area of journalistic knowledge.

You will find in these descriptions language that, we hope, is contemporary, including words such as “curation,” “aggregation,” and “data visualization,” language that was not part of journalism study when the pyramid was first created.

There were some key questions that were not resolved when the pyramid was built — and that remain unresolved. The big question is this: How many of these competencies should reside in any individual journalist? Or is it possible and desirable to imagine that these competencies can reside across a news organization, expressed in the work of specialists? In short, should the writer of the story also know how to develop an algorithm of data analysis and also be able to design a page?

Our tentative answer (perhaps I should restate that as “my” tentative answer) is that versatility is one of the most important virtues in contemporary journalism. That does not mean that the journalist need be an expert in all these areas. But it requires the journalist to be able to converse with colleagues in these areas across disciplines and “without an accent.” Competence is not a synonym for expertise.

We invite you to climb the Pyramid of Competence. Let us know how the world of journalism looks when you reach the top.

* * * * *

News Judgment

This competence resides in every academic discipline but is made manifest in powerful ways in the study and practice of journalism.

On any given day – or minute – the journalist (especially the editor) sorts through the events and concerns of the moment, hoping to determine which of them deserves the special attention of general and particular audiences.

Decisions on what to publish are based on two broad categories, expressed here in the form of questions:

• Is it important?

• Is it interesting?

There are, of course, important things that may not be interesting – a fluctuation in the money supply. Interesting things – celebrity divorces – may not be important. But on many days, the two categories will converge:

• The attacks of 9/11.

• The oil spill in the Gulf.

• The collapse of the economy in 2008.

• The election of the first African-American president.

• The rate of suicide of soldiers returned from war.

All these are terribly interesting and crucially important, relevant at some level to every person on the planet. Such stories deserve a standing at the top of the news ladder.

But these choices are obvious. The importance of news is relative. On some days news is slow so that an alligator attack across the state gets more attention than it may deserve. Then there are big news days when stories elbow each other for prominence. A significant tropical storm that hit Tampa Bay in 2001 got much less attention than usual because it happened the week of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

An editor with rich experience and refined news judgment will be able to see important news that is invisible to others. This is an invaluable civic, democratic, and commercial power. An expert is paying attention.

[News judgment describes the cognitive acts of understanding what matters: what is most important or most interesting. It is exercised in such practices as the generation of story ideas by reporters; by selection and play of stories by news editors; by the curation and aggregation of items on the Internet.]

Courses that would enrich news judgment

• Reporting I & II

• Advanced Reporting

• Editing I & II

• Investigative Reporting

• Computer-Assisted Reporting

• Work on School Publications

• Internships at News Organizations

• Media & Society

• News & Media Literacy

• Understanding Social Networks

An essay to read that would enhance news judgment

“From Politics to Human Interest,” by Helen MacGill Hughes

Reporting and Evidence

If news judgment sits as one cornerstone of the pyramid of competence, reporting serves as the other. In an academic context, reporting represents the gathering, verification, and distribution of evidence.

• Why is the price of gasoline so high?

• Where is the balance between personal privacy and national security?

• What were the root causes for the attacks on America on 9/11?

• Is Apple exploiting Chinese workers?

The answers to these questions cannot be simply asserted. Reporters and other news researchers must go out, gather evidence from reliable sources, check it out, and present it in the public interest.

Journalists of various types learn different methods of hunting and gathering information: documents (such as court records), minutes or notes taken at meetings, chronologies, interviews, public records, direct observation, participant observation, immersion reporting, data analysis, participation in social networks – these are just some of the methods journalists use to gain a meaningful picture of the world.

Science, law, economics, ethnography – each discipline offers a distinctive perspective on what constitutes good evidence. The big word for this in philosophy is “epistemology,” the philosophy of knowing. In journalism the questions might go simply, “How do reporters know?”

Academic study takes this to another level, “How do they KNOW what they know?”

[Reporting and Evidence represent the process and products of research.

The traditional methods of reporting all involve finding things out and checking them out, what Kovach and Rosenstiel describe as a discipline of verification, not assertion. Evidence involves tests of reliability, often based on knowledge of the sources. Reporters gather evidence, which is then tested against the standards of editors. Investigations, often to expose wrongdoing, require different standards of evidence than traditional reporting. Forms of evidence are gathered by photographers and documentary videographers, and, most recently, by computer-assisted and data-management efforts. Since standards of evidence differ in various disciplines, knowledge of a field outside of journalism – law, economics, biology – enrich all acts of reporting.]

Courses that would enrich reporting and evidence

• Reporting I & II

• Public Service Reporting

• Fact-Checking and Verification

• Computer-Assisted Reporting

• Scientific Method

• Ethnography

• Rules of Evidence

• Philosophy of Knowledge

• Quantitative Methods

An essay to read that would enhance reporting and evidence

“Getting the Story in Vietnam,” by David Halberstam

Language and Storytelling

The pyramid of journalism competence is built upon a foundation. One of its blocks is the effective use of language to express reports, stories, and other appropriate forms of communication.

Canadian scholar Stuart Adam argues that, at heart, journalists are a type of author, the work existing on a spectrum that extends from the civic to the literary. Competent journalists exhibit versatility in this area, demonstrating the capacity to write in different genres and for different media – long or short, fast or slow – for a variety of audiences and platforms.

A key distinction is between reports and stories. At the heart of journalism remains the neutral, unbiased report, still grounded in the traditional questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how. Using what semanticist S.I. Hayakawa termed “unloaded” language, the reporter sorts through the evidence to provide audiences with good information in the public interest.

The yang to the yin of the report is the story. The product of story is not information, but experience, and the effect is not just actionable knowledge, but empathy. This is created by the transformation of elements of reporting into narrative, so that who becomes character, what becomes scenic action, when becomes chronology, where becomes setting, why (always the most difficult) becomes motive, and how becomes how it happened.

There are forms of reportage and narrative that are expressed via other media and methods (we’ll get to these). But the written word on the page is the basis for all others.

[Language and Storytelling come to the journalist through normal intellectual development, but are enhanced by the practice of authorship, the study of language (including a foreign language), experimentation with a variety of narrative strategies in multiple genres across media platforms.]

Courses that would enrich language and storytelling

• Elements of Language

• Latin

• Composition I & II

• Surveys of English and American Literature

• Poetry

• Advanced Reporting

• Nonfiction Narrative

• Theories of Narrative

• Foreign Language

An essay to read that would enhance language and storytelling

“Politics and the English Language,” by George Orwell

Analysis and Interpretation

To quote the 1947 Hutchins Commission report, “It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.” Context, meaning, trends, relationships, tensions all must appear on the radar screen of the discerning journalist. Some scoops are conceptual.

“Critical thinking” has become too vague a concept to describe this capacity. This form of literacy falls somewhere between analysis and interpretation and is often conveyed in arguments, commentary, opinion, and investigative reporting.

• How does a sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University resemble the one inside the Catholic Church?

• In what sense has global economics given us a “flat” world?

• Can the events of 9/11/2001 really be traced back to political and religious forces in Egypt, dating back to 1948?

The ability to see such questions, to analyze them and derive meaning from them, comes from the exercise of cognitive muscles toned in the gymnasia of traditional academic disciplines, from studies as diverse as evolutionary biology to anthropology to calculus to world literature.

Formal journalism study that is too narrow (with too many courses specifically about journalism) may result in short-term gains at the expense of long-term progress in a career. The aspiring journalist needs the enrichment of the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences; it is from those deep wells that the competent journalist can draw.

[Analysis and Interpretation describe the ability of the journalist to make sense of the often jumbled and chaotic movements of the day. In a deadline story or in a book, the journalist gains audience and credibility when he or she can discern trends, patterns, a higher or deeper level of meaning. This has no agreed-up name, but comes under phrases such as “sense-making,” “gaining altitude,” “conceptual scoops,” and “collateral journalism.”]

Courses that would enrich analysis and interpretation

• Myth and Literature

• History of Science

• Abnormal Psychology

• Quantum Physics

• Principles of Economy

• Art Appreciation

• Technology and Society

An essay to read that would enhance analysis and interpretation

“The Dark Continent of American Journalism,” by James W. Carey


Innumeracy can be as bad as illiteracy in a profession – especially one such as journalism that describes its members as watchdogs in the public interest. Corruption of power – by banks or governments – often involves the abuse of numbers. The ability to work with numbers – especially for those with a natural word orientation – enriches reporting capacity exponentially.

[If you do not know the meaning of the metaphor “exponential,” you may have some work to do.]

Let’s take the case of the young reporter who asks a state commissioner of education why the budget for pre-school education was cut last year. “Check your facts, please,” says the commissioner. “Our budget increased by one percent,” and that’s what the reporter put in a draft of the story. Until a more numerate editor asked “What was the inflation rate last year?” Turned out, it was 3 percent. So that in real dollars, the value of money to be spent on education did, indeed, decline.

More and more, the numbers tell the story. The analysis and presentation of numbers – described in the jargon “big data” – adds in the reporting of such diverse topics as to whether state lottery revenues actually contribute to education, to the probable winners in an electoral cycle, to whether or not a certain economic policy is discriminatory, to the workings of a successful fantasy football league.

A lack of numeracy has been described as the “dark hole” of journalism competence. It need not be that way. In fact, the analysis of numbers often reveals a secret part of the world that can be explored by reporters and storytellers. Reporter Mara Hvistendahl knew that in normal circumstances 105 boy babies are born for every 100 girl babies. Her research discovered that the Chinese port city of Lianyungang has a gender ratio for children under five of 163 boys for every 100 girls. Armed with such numbers she set off for Asia to report their human consequences.

[Numeracy is most often the ability to use computation skills (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) to understand the world. For some stories, higher skills are necessary, including the ability to report for numbers, understand probability and statistics, and work with basic economic concepts – such as adjusting for inflation. Journalists also make routine decisions about what information to include in print stories, and which ones to illustrate graphically.]

Courses that would enrich numeracy

• Probability and Statistics

• College Level Algebra (and more advanced courses in mathematics)

• Math for Journalists

• Econometrics

• Quantitative Social Science Methodology

• Investigative Reporting

An essay to read that would enhance numeracy

“The Scientific Way,” by Victor Cohn


It may be obvious to state the importance of technological literacy in the digital age, but consider the complexity of this: that many students raised with the Internet may be, in important ways, more technologically literate than their professors. Universities must grapple with who has the capacity to teach students about technology in the interests of journalism and democracy.

The key for journalism competence is to understand technology in two ways:

1. How technology undergirds changing forms of journalism – the way that the telegraph liberated news from geography and transportation.

2. How technology acts as a force that changes society – for better and worse – thus demanding coverage in the news itself.

The competent journalist must be prepared to work successfully in a variety of media platforms, from print to video to digital to mobile – including forms that have not yet been invented. Just as “computer assisted reporting” once enriched investigative work, there is now new potential in forms of computer programming, data analysis and display.

Technological innovations can be disruptive, placing demands on the competent journalist to manage change, and often to embrace it, but it does not require achieving escape velocity from enduring values and traditions.

What is called for here is neither technophilia nor phobia, but a techno-realism that recognizes the gains and compensates for the losses brought by new technologies.

[Technology literacy includes abilities in word processing, search and research functions, social networking, blogging, programming, mobile applications, data analysis and display, aggregation and curation.]

Courses that would enrich technological competency

• History of Technology

• Technology, Community, Culture

• Computer Science

• Introduction to Programming

• Computer-Assisted Reporting

• Introduction to Blogging

• Data Analysis and Display

An essay to read that would enhance technological literacy

“Into the Electronic Millennium,” by Sven Birkerts


Long before the invention of the written word, humans created forms of storytelling that took care of their informational and aspirational needs. Drawings on cave walls in France tell stories of the hunt and of the gods. Oral poetry – often recited to music – defined cultures and described heroes and enemies.

The audio and visual have evolved as crucial modes of journalism expression, a movement magnified by the Internet.

While there remains a place for journalism specialization, versatility is a virtue of the day. The backpack journalist collects photos, videos, sound, and writes texts. The cell phone is a tool that allows the collection of all these elements in the palm of the hand.

But one key feature of favorite technologies is their design. The world’s great designers have turned their attention from newspapers and magazines to websites and blogs to mobile technologies such as the iPhone and iPad. Audio and visual elements enrich everything from news navigation to data display to storytelling in multi-media and multiple media forms.

Radio remains a powerful medium for journalism worldwide, and famous networks such as the BBC and NPR now use text and visual elements on their websites.

This is one literacy in which collaboration is crucial and the best work undertaken comes from the marriage of writing, editing, and design.

[Audio-Visual literacy is expressed through photography and video, design and illustration, the use of color, creation of slide shows and other multi-media productions, the use of natural sound, and the use of music, when appropriate.]

Courses that would enrich audio-visual literacy

• History of Western Art

• 20th Century Art (Modern & Post-Modern)

• Theories of Color

• History of Photography

• Art and Craft of Photo Composition

• Multi-Media Reporting and Editing

• Music Appreciation

• Selected Masters of Classical Music

• Jazz

• Musical Performance (any instrument, including voice)

An essay to read that would enhance audio-visual literacy

“In Plato’s Cave,” by Susan Sontag

Civic literacy

The teaching of civics in American public or private schools has never been known as ideal – even in decades past. Civic literacy requires basic knowledge of such things as the separation of powers, the three branches of government, and how a bill becomes a law. It is enriched by a knowledge of American history and familiarity with the foundational documents of democracy, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, famous Supreme Court Decisions, the Emancipation Proclamation, etc.

Much of what journalists will learn about civics will come from the experience of covering beats such as city hall, the school board, and criminal courts. All this is necessary but insufficient to the achievement of civic literacy. In addition to official sources of power and influence, there are countless informal ones: the barber shop, the nail salon, the diner, the soccer field, the church choir – sources of social capital where the pulse of practical democracy can be taken.

[Civic Literacy requires knowledge of government, politics, social capital, social contracts, power, history, public life, civic culture, how audiences can be measured for public opinion, how media influence the constituent groups in society.]

Courses that would enrich civic literacy

• Introduction to U.S. Government

• Comparative Government and Politics

• American History

• World History

• Introduction to Democratic Theory

• Lippman, Dewey, and the American Social Contract

• Origins and Structures of Social Capital

• Introduction to Constitutional Law

An essay to read to enhance civic literacy

“Bowling Alone,” by Robert Putnam

Cultural Literacy

Professor James Carey would often argue that news and other forms of journalism were expressions of culture, increasing their value as objects of scholarly study and practical investigation. One of the purposes of journalism is to reflect the constituent elements within a society so that they can see each other and converse across differences.

It is not unusual for certain expressions of journalism to emanate from a particular cultural point of view. In America, in spite of changing demographics, that mainstream perspective often reflects the interests and beliefs of the white governing class, residing in centers of power such as New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles.

Recognizing the potential for self-interest and bias, journalists seek a cultural competence that allows them to operate with people and in places that are unfamiliar. To use the academic jargon of the day, they must learn to see The Other.

Often this is most easily understood and accounted for when journalists serve as foreign correspondents. When they travel to Asia, the Middle East, or South America, they may prepare themselves by studying the language and culture of the new setting. But the same learning across difference must occur when an American reporter travels to another part of the country.

In many towns, differences must be learned when traveling from one end of a street to the other.

[Cultural Literacy requires knowledge of and sensitivity to cultural differences, whether they are expressed by race, social class, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Key issues related to cultural literacy include assimilation and diversity, multi-culturalism, international understanding, and foreign languages.]

Courses that would enrich cultural literacy

• Introduction to Anthropology

• Gender Studies

• Class and Power in American Society

• From Slavery to Freedom

• Race and Culture in America

• Foreign Language

• Comparative Culture and Literature

An essay to read to enhance cultural literacy

“Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” by W.E.B. DuBois

Mission and Purpose

From the cornerstones of news judgment and reporting, up from the foundational blocks, through technology, and beyond civic and cultural literacy, the pyramid of competence reaches a pinnacle with an understanding of mission and purpose.

Journalism is a profession that often resides within a business, an enterprise that creates wealth that can be used to commit better journalism. While there has always been – and always will be – a tension between professional and commercial interests, all involved in the enterprise must achieve a clear vision of mission and purpose.

The exercise of craft without purpose can become irrelevant or even dangerous. When journalists operate in the public interest, they often commit their best work. A sense of purpose grows out of the practice of journalism, but also out of academic study, which includes familiarity with the canons of ethics, law, journalism history, standards and practices, and the study of principles of democracy, theories of liberty and justice, conversations about the social contract.

[Mission and Purpose derive from both practice and study. Sources of knowledge include media ethics and law, the First Amendment, the history of journalism (with special attention to its noble and heroic characters), principles of democracy, and a working knowledge of the role journalism plays in communities and municipalities.]

Courses that would enrich a sense of mission and purpose

• Studies in the First Amendment

• History of Journalism

• Media and Journalism Ethics

• Applied Ethics

• Principles of Democracy

• Theories of Justice

• Advanced Literary Studies

• Theories of the Press

• Civic Journalism

• Journalism and Society

An essay to read to enhance a sense of mission and purpose

“A Free and Responsible Press,” report of the 1947 Hutchins Commission

Correction: A previous version of this post contained a typo in a reference to 9/11/2001.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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