What’s the difference between a journalist and a writer?

28 06 2011

So what’s the difference between a journalist and a writer? No, this isn’t a joke with a facetious punchline. The answer at the moment appears to be Johann Hari and the way he conducts his interviews.

I checked Hari’s background. My perception of him has been someone who waltzed into a job on the nationals straight from university and has spent much of his career writing well-crafted and thoughtful think pieces. I wasn’t far wrong – according to his website, his first job was a staff reporter on the New Statesman. He’s been a columnist on the Evening Standard and is a senior contributing editor to Attitude magazine. Apparently his commitment to the Independent is writing twice-weekly for them.

And there, I think, you have it. Hari is a writer and not a journalist – and I think there’s a key difference. He doesn’t get his hands dirty on the newsgathering beat or spend his time phoning around people for quotes. Instead, his output is think pieces and lengthy profiles. Sure, he’s working to deadlines, conducting interviews and doing research for the pieces. But it’s not something where nailing the killer quote is his main goal – his “intellectual portrait” line is the giveaway.

A profile interview is a moment in time. Sure, you can include other material from outside it – quotes from friends or enemies, plus things the interviewee has said in the past. But they’re outside of that interview bubble and need to be identified as such. What’s wrong with including ‘has said’ on a quote from the subject’s book, or even mentioning the book title?

As others have said, people change their minds about things. So passing a quote off from a book they may have written some years ago as sparkly-fresh from a new interview is very dodgy. And it’s not up to Hari to make the interviewee look good. If they’re grunty, uncooperative or inarticulate, the piece needs to reflect that.

It opens, too, that can of worms on journalism training. If Hari did one of the MA courses, he hasn’t mentioned it. So where did he learn his interviewing skills and law from? And it’s probably the safest bet in the universe that he can’t do shorthand.

I have a vested interest in flying the flag for journalism courses. And of course there are good journalists out there who haven’t been on a pre-entry or degree course. But students gain a hell of a lot of skills from three years on a degree course or an intensive year on an MA or PGDIP. They’re taught how to interview, they learn to write news stories, features and think pieces, they have to pass law exams – and they learn about journalism ethics.

Hari’s blithe admission – and inability to see he’s doing anything wrong – makes it difficult for those of us training young journalists. If I’d had a quid for every time I’ve told a student that no, you can’t lift quotes from elsewhere and that you should obtain them yourself, I’d be sunning myself someone rather more exotic than Portsmouth.

I wouldn’t go so far as saying that Hari has been behaving unethically or dishonestly. And I’m not sure it’s either churnalism and plagiarism. In a nutshell, it’s very poor practice – and absolutely no defence to say that others do it as well. And Hari might want to look to his interview skills if he’s not happy with the standard of quotes he’s obtaining in interviews.