INTERVIEWING JOURNALISTS, for whom asking questions is an integral part of their everyday job, was, truth to be told, a daunting feat. While speaking to two journalists who willingly shared some insight into their work life, I had the opportunity to witness the experts in their true element. They were perceptive—quick enough to understand exactly what I was asking for and what information was important. Those skills have been polished over the years both in the field and inside the dimly lit office cubicles—moments that are often glossed over and glamorized in films. That is why The Yonsei Annals sat down with two journalists, Lee Mee-jee, staff reporter at Social Policy Division from Dong-A Ilbo and Nam Hyung-do, deputy editor at the Department of Digital News from MONEYTODAY to share their experience of hard work, perseverance, and compassion.
A day in the life of a journalist
Annals: Journalists are known for having no “work-life balance.” Could you tell us about the typical day of a journalist?
Lee: Journalists work in their designated areas of reporting. As soon as I wake up at dawn, I skim through the most recent news. Then, I go straight to the site of reporting at around 8 or 8:30 a.m. instead of going to the office. [Before taking maternity leave,] I used to cover the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Health and Welfare [including hospitals], as well as the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. At the site, I would talk to representatives from the se Ministries and then read through press releases to select stories to cover. I would send the items to what is called the “desk”—a group of senior journalists and chief journalists who conduct a meeting to finalize the issues worth reporting. Once topics are finalized, I immediately start my research by meeting people, going to locations related to the event, or making phone calls. Usually for lunch, I would eat with my sources whom I have made appointments with. After that, I give an interim report (to the desk) in case of any progress in the event or new press releases. I start writing from 3 p.m. and first drafts are usually completed sometime between 4 to 5 p.m. The senior journalists return the edited draft and final drafts are completed before 7 p.m. Once the articles are done, journalists, including me, either prepare for the next day’s articles or leave the office.
Annals: The work-life balance does not seem that bad.
Nam: There is a reason we do not live by a strict schedule; news doesn’t stop just because it’s not office hours for journalists. Be it a sudden natural disaster or a controversy involving conglomerates, people want to read about it regardless of the time. So, journalists need to write and release articles as soon as possible. For instance, when my designated area of reporting was the Seoul Metropolitan Government, I once received a notice at 9 p.m., saying there would be a sudden press briefing. I had to leave halfway through dinner. For journalists, it is generally hard to plan out life and have any semblance of regularity. But, how unpredictable your day is really depends on which division you belong to. In Politics or Society divisions, work-life balance is as bad as it is portrayed in the media, but other divisions are relatively more lenient.
Lee: It is true that Politics, Society or Law divisions have a lack of work-life balance compared to other divisions. But if important issues, concerning these other divisions, arise, then journalists affiliated to those divisions have to be on the watch as well. For example, when the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome broke out in Korea in 2015, I had to stay at hospitals for days without getting off work because I covered the Ministry of Heath at the time.
Annals: Are there any other difficulties of being a journalist?
Lee: I think journalists are always under pressure because we need to take responsibility for the articles that are published under our names. Also, the quality of my articles really depends on how much effort I put into my work. The more research I do, the more comprehensive the article turns out. So unlike other professions where the workday ends once all assignments are complete, our job does not really have a sense of finality. It does feel like there is no “end of work” for journalists. The work continues even after office hours.
Nam: There is a kind of stress unique to journalists; we have to constantly come up with topics to write for articles. So, even when I arrive home from the office, I will still be thinking about work. I do research on what to write for the next day and sometimes meet people for interviews. I usually stack up two-months’ worth of ideas in advance because good original ideas do not easily come to mind when I need them. You need to be diligent; there is no other way for journalists.
Annals: I imagine it would be very difficult for you, journalist Lee, to work full-time while also being a mother of four children.
Lee: To be frank, once you become a senior journalist, it is hard to climb up the ladder as a female journalist. The organizational structure has a pyramid shape, meaning that one senior journalist could be responsible for around six journalists. These journalists would send in their first drafts between 4 and 5 p.m., so the senior journalist’s main task of editing articles begins around then. So, the earliest time they can go home is about 8 p.m., and most often leave after midnight. Because moms are mainly the ones responsible for raising children in contemporary Korean society, it becomes difficult for female journalists to handle demands from both work and home. But on a more positive note, nowadays journalists can work from anywhere if they have a laptop and a space to write. Media agencies including my current company are providing better maternity leaves and other welfare programs for female journalists.
The process of covering a story
Annals: A major task for journalists every day is to come up with topics to write. Where do you get your sources of inspiration besides press releases?
Lee: It is important to meet a lot of people. Journalists need to treat every moment in life as a moment to cover something. For instance, as a parent of four children, I would visit my child’s nursery and talk to the head teacher, asking her how hard running the centre is. Through normal conversations, I would develop topics to write about. Also, it is crucial to meet as many sources as possible and to stay on top of news. In other words, you have to stay diligent.
Nam: I usually get my source of inspiration by observing my surroundings and contemplating about them. I like to refer to the process as “looking around.” I would go to places that people usually do not pay attention to and think about reasons why a person is behaving in a certain way or wonder what other people might be thinking. I can find ideas from even the most mundane events in my day to day life.
Annals: How often do your topics get cut by the desk? Also, are there times when completed articles do not get published because of the desk’s decision?
Nam: My division has a weekly meeting every Monday. During the meeting, I present potential topics for the upcoming week’s article and receive feedback from the desk. If the topic is deemed weak, the desk will order to “kill” it, which is their term for rejecting the idea. Other times, the desk makes corrections or redirects the focus of the article. I get feedback and orders for additional research after the first draft as well. Killing articles at this stage is very rare.
Lee: Killing articles does happen, but only in rare cases when the decision involves sensitive topics that can go against the company’s code of ethics. However, in my opinion, whether or not such articles are published depends on the journalist’s ability. If the journalist does extensive research and gathers reports that no other news agency has dealt with before, the company will most likely release the article regardless of its values.
Annals: Journalism often relies heavily on interviews with numerous people. How difficult is it to approach people and get interviews?
Nam: Reporting begins with rejection. In the process of getting interviews, I do get hurt by rejections and get frustrated at those who do not seem to understand why I am asking for interviews. However, it is important to keep in mind that all jobs will eventually require you to work with difficult people who refuse to understand where you are coming from. Ultimately, I found that being sincere is the best way to make someone open up.
Lee: I find it most difficult when I have to write about sensitive topics that involve interviews with bereaved families. I think the only advice I can give is to really try to understand their situation. Do not treat the interviews merely as a part of reporting, approach the interviewees with true empathy. Those who reject the interviews are likely to have hidden scars from the past, so trying to show understanding is crucial. What moves a heart is a heart.
Annals: Why do you continue to work as a journalist despite the hardships? When are you most satisfied with your job?
Lee: I think the most charming part of this profession is that a young person like me who does not have special qualifications can write about important people and events that people are really interested in. I feel so much pride in knowing that my article has the power to bring real change. No other job has such influence, in my opinion.
Nam: I try to write articles that pay attention to the neglected and that encourage empathy. In current society, every class has conflicting interests, and these classes are deeply divided. By having more sympathy and by understanding each other, we could address social problems. Policymakers can become fully aware of the needs of the people and address their concerns better. I feel most satisfied when I receive feedback from readers, through online comments or emails, saying they have opened their eyes to certain social problems from reading my article.
Recently, I wrote an extensive article on an old woman’s challenge of collecting wastepaper. She earns a meager daily income of ₩10,000 to support two grandchildren and herself. What makes the situation worse is that she has poor dental health, so she needs to use a straw to eat properly. When the article was published, I received around 200 emails from readers who wanted to give support to the old woman and her grandchildren in various ways. I felt very proud, realizing that people are not as indifferent as I had initially thought.
Important abilities for journalists
Annals: What do you think is the most important ability for a journalist?
Lee: Attending my company’s job interviews and observing new journalists who enter the company, I notice that those who pass have made a good impression on others. Journalists have to constantly meet people and encourage them to speak about given issues. So, reputability and effective communication are very important abilities to possess. Such skills are believed to be innate, but a person can also develop them through experience and training. Another thing is being empathetic. It is not only key to securing an interview, but it also helps in selecting stories to cover. By having empathy, you can sense what is important for the people. Writing is a skill that anyone can refine through training and it is merely a basis for a journalist.
Nam: It is important not to forget your sense of purpose—the reason why you wanted to b and the passion to make the world a better place. Once you work as a journalist for a long time, writing can simply become a habit; you begin to write articles for the sake of writing them. Avoid falling into such a trap by always reminding yourself why you chose this profession. Another important trait of an aspiring journalist is to stay curious about your surroundings. When observing the world around you, you need to think about things that are taken for granted. Bear in mind that any injustice in society should be corrected.
Annals: In this digital era, it seems anyone has the chance to write and share their thoughts online. How do you think journalists can differentiate themselves from the rest?
Nam: Since anyone can write freely, in the form of internet comments or social media, I do contemplate on what roles journalists play nowadays. My answer is that we should go back to the basics. Unlike any other forms of writing, journalistic writing should be based on the purpose of bringing change to the world. Also, sticking to facts is of utmost importance. My main concern nowadays is how to write “fun” articles while staying true to the facts, so I have been experimenting a lot with article formats. I think the current era does not have much room for patience. Most people do not read articles unless they are fun. So, my main goal is to report on the overlooked sectors of the society while being engaging so that more people can read the article.
Lee: People not reading the news in general is a concern that media companies and journalists all share. We contemplate on ways to get people’s attention, especially that of the younger generation. One way is to use social network. My current column series on raising four children, in fact, began with writing short thoughts on Facebook. People began to pay attention to this uncommon situation of having four children and my Facebook posts developed into a column series. As I mentioned before, crosschecking facts is an important responsibility that journalists hold and is the advantage that journalists still have, compared to online content creators. This is all thanks to our team of senior journalists and chiefs who go through editing each article at least three to four times every day. Using social media platforms to attract the young while presenting honest information is an important task nowadays.
For aspiring journalists
Annals: If you could go back to college, what tips would you give yourself to be a better journalist in the future?
Lee: It sounds rudimentary, but I would have stuck to reading books and newspapers consistently. During my college years, I was an ordinary student who enjoyed socializing and spending time spoiling myself. Also, as I did not aspire to become a journalist at that time, I did not really pay attention to the news at all. However, when I entered the current company I work for as a cub reporter, I struggled to catch up when other cub reporters mentioned news that occurred years prior. Without background knowledge, I could only write about current events rather than analyzing and referencing issues in the past. Also, I personally found having in-depth knowledge in social sciences useful as you could refer to different social theories when writing articles, which adds more layers to your analysis.
Nam: I would recommend visiting places that you have never been to before and accumulating experience. College life is when you can use your time most freely and expand your horizons. Also, rather than doing what everyone else is doing and getting into programs offered by companies and clubs, conduct your own projects where you plan everything from scratch. It will help you stand out from the rest.
Annals: What advice would you give to university students who want to become a journalist but do not know what to write about?
Lee: There are people who have interests and knowledge in specialized fields, and there are those who do not. Either way you should not worry too much. As you enter this profession, you will come to discover what you want to write about. Also, you may find out that certain fields that you were not interested in before could become your specialties. For example, I never had any interest in technology. However, in 2010 when iPhones started to enter the South Korean technology market, I was assigned to the IT division shortly and was instructed to write headlines on iPhones. Though I had no prior knowledge and was concerned that my article would be shallow compared to maniacs’ knowledge, I started with asking myself what most readers would want to know about. Then, I enjoyed the process of researching and writing about the iPhones. I could always discover new areas of interest as I went along my career path.
Nam: I do not think it is late if university students have not found their special areas of interest yet. In fact, having diverse interests is natural at that age because you are still at the stage of accumulating knowledge and experience. As you meet people and do things you like, there will be a point in your life when you realize what you really want to write about. You do not need to be in a hurry. My last piece of advice for aspiring journalists is to be attentive to what is happening around the world and constantly think about what can be improved. Instead of treating social issues as someone else’s problem, approach them with empathy and do not dismiss them as the inevitable. Be enthusiastic and do not lose the will to make the world a better place.
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In times when fake news is actively spreading disinformation and creating conflicts among members of the society, the role of the journalist is more crucial than ever. Anyone can write and share news online, so it is up to the journalists to set the facts straight and inspire action. The path to justice starts with those who are brave enough to seek the truth.
*Disclaimer: the interviews were conducted separately, but for convenience are presented as a single conversation.