The Top 5 things I learned in journalism school


After 12 gruelling months of late nights, stacks of notepads, hours of audio tape, and an unhealthy amount of coffee and greasy pizza, I’ve finally completed the Master of Arts in Journalism program at the University of Western Ontario.

In an ode to the time I spent learning from some amazing instructors and peers, here are the Top 5 things I learned at j-school.

Editor’s note: Don’t forget to check out Daniela’s last article,
How Barack Obama made my dream internship come true

1. If your mother tells you she loves you, what do you do? You check it out!

I know this probably sounds pretty weird to most people, but it means that, as a journalist, you must be skeptical of everything. I’m not saying you should never believe a word you hear, but you should always be curious about the information you are given and the source it came from. Check, check and double check all the facts!

As reporters, our first obligation is to provide the public with the truth, but it’s not enough to publish information and check it later. We must make every effort to ensure the information we have received is valid before we share it with the public.

Think of the Balloon Boy fiasco last year. Did anyone in the media question if there really was a little boy in that balloon? Maybe if someone had stopped to think about it for a few minutes before they posted the story online or broke the news on TV, the hoax would have been discovered sooner.

So, the next time your mom tells you she loves you, make sure you have at least two other valid sources to confirm this statement before you go tell everyone. Accuracy is key.

2. Don’t use a $10 word when a $5 word will suffice

This one came from my time as a co-op student at the London Free Press. Having the opportunity to go over my work with the editors was a great learning experience and I will be sure to use their tips and advice every time I approach a new story.

A problem facing most writers, including myself, is being as concise as possible. When you are writing for newspapers in particular, space for each story is limited and sometimes you will be given only 500 words for a story you think you need 700 words to tell. This is why it is important to write clearly and concisely.

Remember all those long and fancy words you used to fill up your academic essays during your undergrad? Throw them out the window and stick to simple sentences. This was quite a struggle for me after all those years of writing 4,000 word papers, but the best thing to remember is just to tell the story as you would explain it to a friend or family member.

3. The Canadian Press Style Guide is like the Bible for journalists

First, I must say I owe everything I know about grammar, spelling and editing to my professor, Mary Doyle. I may not practice it perfectly all the time, but the rules have  been implanted in my head.

You can’t be a good journalist if your work is riddled with spelling and grammar errors, and editors will be much happier if they don’t have to spend all their time making your stories comprehensible. This is why you need the latest edition of the CP Style Guide as well as Caps and Spelling to get the job done right.

All semester, if anyone would ask, “Does this word have a hyphen? Do I need to capitalize this? What’s the abbreviation for that?” we would all say, “CP Style!” It’s hard to  explain how valuable this book is for a writer, but it was definitely the best purchase I made all school year.

4. If it bleeds is leads

It sounds pretty gruesome and sensational, but it’s true (and if you start paying close attention to news coverage it will become more apparent).

After writing countless practice news stories about house fires, shootings, dead bodies and car accidents you find there is a hierarchy when it comes to reporting events. It goes a little something like this:

  1. People
  2. Money
  3. Stuff

If a person (or an animal) dies or is hurt, it must be the first thing you report on in the story. If a large sum of money is stolen or lost that goes next. And finally, if anything is destroyed or badly damaged (house, car, building, etc.) that would go after you report on the other two. Not exactly the best types of stories to cover, but somebody’s gotta do it.

5. Good things come to those who work really, really hard

Sure, I had to pull my weight during my undergrad, but grad school was a whole other story!

When the school year first began, I remember being told, “You will get as much out of this program as you put into it.” Boy did I take that to heart. There never seemed to be enough hours in the day to work on all those assignments, sit through hours of class and be involved in extra-curricular opportunities, but I tried my best.

When things weren’t going my way, I wondered why I ever decided journalism school was a good idea. But when things turned out great all those worries melted right away.

Whether it was searching for story ideas, interviewing sources, editing a podcast or putting the final touches on a video clip, I can honestly say I have never worked harder at anything in my life than I have in the last 12 months. But all those long nights and wasted weekends spent in the North Campus Building computer labs to get everything done just right was well worth all the stress, tears, hissy fits and bad hair days.

It made me stronger, it made me wiser and, most importantly, it made me realize that with enough dedication and persistence anything is possible.

About the author

Daniela DiStefano is a recent journalism graduate and a freelance writer. Her work can be found on her personal website.