This is a piece I wrote as part of my Postgraduate Diploma in journalism at Cardiff in 2006-7 and have decided to share now because it’s a theme I’ve been chewing on a bit again recently, while I work out what – other than “write a novel which may or may not sell” – to do with my life. I found it at the very bottom of my inbox with a lovely note from the bloke quoted in it, an ex-BBC foreign correspondent. I remember, in demonstrative introvert fashion, speaking to him on my mobile in an empty park in freezing Welsh November rain that was preferable to phoning from the busy newsroom, but it was a great interview and he paid me a professional compliment I can still quote exactly (but won’t). I chose the topic and wrote the standfirst myself (I assume the bonkers length was prescribed. I think the leader for that module was a tutor from the PR Diploma, snark snark…). For all my banging on about introversion and sensitivity, I don’t half babble when of a mind. After training I actually ended up in an admin-heavy job I was basically shite at and which interpersonal/comms skills/resilience pretty much kept me in for a couple of years when I should’ve gone after a couple of months, so there we go…
“Successful journalism makes as many demands on a journalist’s personality as their writing skills. Its popular image is of a person who fears nothing and will stop at nothing for a story. But is this accurate, and can more sensitive types cut it just as well, or even better, in this demanding profession?”
In his autobiography My Trade, journalist Andrew Marr describes how during his first job at The Scotsman a news editor would patrol the office, standing behind trainees as they typed, then reach over and wordlessly rip the paper from the typewriter,scrumple it into a ball in front of their face. You apparently knew you were getting better if he allowed you to finish a paragraph before destroying it. Marr goes on to describes how learning to gather news meant “scrubbing away any natural shyness.”
And so it goes on. From tales of former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie’s legendary dressing downs that could be heard from several floors below, to the backstabbing world of the fashion glossy, presented in docu-drama The Devil Wears Prada the message is everywhere. Loud, thick-skinned, fast-acting journalists get ahead. Quiet, sensitive types, this isn’t the career for you.
The difference between loud and thick-skinned, quiet and sensitive is the difference between two sets of personality traits, as defined by Carl Jung: extroversion/introversion and thinking/feeling. The widespread use of Jung-based personality tests like the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) in modern recruitment underlines the importance that personality is perceived to have in one’s career. According to their proponents these tests tell you a lot more about a person’s responses to situations than how likely they are to entertain colleagues in the pub. From a journalistic point of view, they can predict whether someone will recover well from trauma and rejection, respond quickly to situations, or let their head rule their heart when weighing up information.
But, in a profession of many different strands, where a wide range of skills are called for, it does not follow that the extroverted thinking journalist – the loud, fast-acting, thick-skinned news hound – should triumph readily in all situations. Mark Brayne, psychotherapist and former BBC journalist, explains: “To be a journalist you have to be able to ruminate. A good journalist will observe, assimilate, and over time, will create a picture, internalise, and be able to reflect, observe and integrate.”
These are skills that are far away from the usual archetypes, and more attuned to an introverted, feeling personality. There is little denying that criticism and rejection are an integral part of journalism and that people who are naturally sensitive will find this aspect particularly hard to deal with. But Mark offers some consolation:
“Dealing with rejection doesn’t mean to say you should square your shoulders and say these things don’t matter. They do. But like so much in life it’s a question of being able to recognise what you’re going through and have a perspective on it, so that you’re aware of your feelings but not at the mercy of them. It’s about finding a place of mastery. Accept what’s going on, acknowledge it, respect it, and work with it.”
It is also worth guarding against archetypes when it comes to matching traits and behaviour. Are confident people necessarily insensitive and vice versa? A journalist who is sensitive could become so preoccupied with their feelings that rather than emphasising, they appear insensitive to the feelings and needs of their subjects.
Likewise, does the stereotype of the chest-beating extrovert vs. the introvert who falls apart at the slightest knock really hold true? According to psychotherapist Elaine Aron, introverts can in fact be better at coping with criticism. While extroverts constantly rely on others to reaffirm their place in the world. introverts, being inwardly focused, are, Aron claims, less interested in what others think of them and more likely to judge themselves, and their work, by their own standards.
While being a journalist may sometimes feel like being a jack-of-all-trades in terms of the vast and varying demands it can make on a person’s resources, it is worth considering that journalism calls for some very basic qualities: enthusiasm, and a willingness to understand and explain, which can be demonstrated in one way or another whatever your personality, or your specialist knowledge:
“[As an editor] I would rather take on someone who had a burning curiosity about life than someone who knew everything there was to know about Chinese politics,” says Mark Brayne, himself an ex-China correspondent for the BBC who began his job knowing nothing about the country and progressed by way of enthusiasm.
Overall, the best piece of wisdom for any new journalist struggling to unlock themselves could be Henry James’s contribution to the nature/nurture debate: “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”
A COUPLE OF FOOTNOTES, 2013:
1. Yes, I know Meyers Briggs is a problematic measure for a billion reasons, but I only had 750 words to play with and there’s a Dissertation in that…
2. I have never, ever actually met an editor in a recruiting situation who cared more about “enthusiasm for life” than sector knowledge I didn’t have. If you are that editor, we should talk now-ish.