The Metaskills of Journalism
by Gerald Grow, Ph.D .
Professor, Florida A&M University
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
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
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
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.