My editor side has seen an influx of book submissions with journalists as main characters lately. This is great for me. I love reading about journalists!
I’m a freelance writer for a local magazine in the daylight hours. Yes, I cover features instead of hard news, but I had to go to journalism school for this, and I certainly have to live the journalist life: deadlines that bitch slap the crap out of me, editors who aren’t happy with my story, sitting outside (not exactly stalking) the house of a source who won’t return my calls so I can catch them face-to-face…
But I get a little worked up when I read misrepresentations of reporters. Just this week, I vented to the LLL ladies about this very topic (which lead to this lovely post). Now I know you are writing fiction and things get twisted and turned and exaggerated, but if you are writing contemporary, you have to be somewhat realistic and I’ve found that frequently isn’t happening when journalists are being written into fiction.
I just want to take a moment to clear the air a little so if you are considering using a print journalist as a character in your book (for good or for evil) some of these stereotypical, panty-bunching mistakes aren’t made in your manuscript.
- Easily my biggest issue with people writing newspaper articles is using the phrase “this reporter.” As in, “This reporter was told the world is round.” This phrase may have been used 100 years ago, but it isn’t used now. It insinuates the writer into the article, which is completely unprofessional and no newspaper editor would let this in. Ever. Reporters are telling the facts, without opinion, personal interpretation, or commentary…unless they are an opinion columnist.
- Reporters don’t have money to throw around. Newspaper reporters make about 30K per year, maybe 35-40K if they work for a decent-sized paper, but overall, we are a very poor lot. In The Messenger, my main character came from money. She had a nice apartment, clothes, and car because she used her trust fund to get these things. She was the misfit in the news office based on the those with vs. those without mentality of her co-workers. Overall, unless you set it up otherwise, your reporter should drive an average car, shop at average stores, and live in average homes. Sure, there are exceptions, but your everyday newspaper reporter does not drive a Lexus.
- Sensational commentary in a news article would never happen. Reporters write facts. They have sources (quotes from experts, witnesses, or validated research) to back up these facts. This is a requirement for making it to print because people like to sue newspapers. Editors will not approve/print scandalous content. Serious reporters aren’t going to insert opinion, personal jabs, or any other commentary.
- Newspapers as a whole are broke. This means reporters take their own pictures with the shared office camera and drive their own cars to get the story. Newspapers do not provide photographers to go on assignment with reporters and they don’t provide transportation (though if a reporter is full-time, gas mileage may be reimbursed).
- The last time I, or one of my co-workers, wore a suit to an interview was…oh, right, never. Print journalists don’t dress in business suits. At least not your average reporter. Think business casual. Khakis or nice jeans and a semi-dress shirt. A skirt and blouse. One editor I know loves his corduroys, but suits are just not something I’ve seen in the newsroom—except for the publisher, but he’s in business meetings all day with other men/women in suits, so that makes sense.
- I know reporters are usually viewed as a force of evil. Some probably are. We share the horrors of the world more than we share the laughs. But, honestly, if the media only covered the good things, the public would criticize them for not being truthful about the events of the world. Most people view reporters as heartless demons who would step over dying babies to get the scoop. The truth is, we’re human, too. Maybe we don’t break down on the scene, but I guarantee you, even the toughest of reporters have gotten emotional over something they covered. Don’t portray your journalist as a one-dimensional heartless story-grabbing asshat. That’s a stereotype that has been overplayed.
Okay, so that kind of wraps up the biggies. The moral of this blog post? Do some research, whether it is a journalist or a doctor you are including in your manuscript. One phone call and a few questions is all you need to make sure you aren’t making crucial mistakes when representing a profession. Most people are more than happy to tell you what their job is really like. All you have to do is ask.