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How to be a journalist

Journalists and reporters are important. They are people whose job it is to investigate stories, uncover the truth, find out what’s going on (both good and bad!) and then share that information with the general public. The media, which includes newspapers, television, social media, magazines, radio, websites and more, rely on journalists to identify, research and gather news. Some outlets have a particular interest – for example, The Ecologist magazine reports on environmental issues – others will have a broader remit, like the BBC who report on all topics and on the local, national and international news.   Journalists have an important role to play when it comes to issues such as climate change, habitat destruction, species loss, environmental champions, conservation success stories, and more.   They have the opportunity to bring these stories to the attention of the general public in a way that will interest them and help people understand why the story is important and why they should care. Learning how journalists investigate and report on stories is a very useful, interesting and fun skill to have! So why not give it a go? You could put together a School newspaper, contribute to a local newspaper or pitch a story to the BBC or a national newspaper!   There are of course lots of ways to be a journalist – you don’t need to do it with the written or printed word – but we’ve focused on that for now. We’ll add some ideas for video reporting soon!   In the meantime, here are the basics you need to know to work like a journalist.

The brief

All journalists will start a project with what is called ‘the brief’. This is an outline of the aims and objectives of the story they will be covering. Some of this will be given to them and other elements they will add themselves. As an example, if you were going to report on our recent Roots & Shoots Awards, the brief might looks something like this:

  • Attend the Roots & Shoots Awards 2018
  • Write an article between 250 and 350 words in length to go on the Roots & Shoots website that captures the spirit of the Awards, including 1) What happened 2) what were the award categories and who won each award 3) How people felt at the awards 4) any other interesting or noteworthy events.
  • Aim the article at our Roots & Shoots audience: young people who are passionate about the environment, and teachers/youth leader who run help run Roots & Shoots groups. 
  • Source at least 3 images to go with the article
  • Include quotes from at least 2 different people
  • Submit the article by Friday the 16th March

Having a brief is good for all sorts of reasons: it reminds you to think about who your audience are so you write with them in mind, it ensures you write a piece that is the right length for the space you have available, and it helps you think about what you need to do to complete the article and get it submitted in time.

Writing an article

If you’re writing an article for a newspaper or website, it’s important that you capture the attention of your readers straight away.   The first paragraph is the most important: make it engaging, interesting, and convey the key information such as what the event was and why it is significant.   After that, your article needs to cover the 4W’s and 1H: What, Where, Why, When and How – though it doesn’t have to be in that order!

  • WHAT happened at the event – the nitty-gritty of what actually happened, times, etc
  • WHERE was the event – create a sense of the space and atmosphere if you can
  • WHY did the event happen – why did everyone come together, why does this event exist and why is it important?
  • WHEN did the event happen – and is it a rare occurrence? Does it happen often and does it happen anywhere else?
  • HOW did the event happen – how did Roots & Shoots come to be, how did the people are there come to be there (eg did they win an award and if so for what?)
A screen grab from the BBC Newsround website


Quotes are a great way to convey what happened at an event and get across important information.   Quotes can add weight and sincerity to information, for example when an expert provides information on a subject.   They can also convey the sense, experience and emotion of an event from people who were there.   Always ask permission, and feel confident going up to people, as most people will be happy to talk to you, especially if it’s a happy event.   Say hello, introduce yourself, say what you’re doing then ask if you could ask them a few questions.   Rather than say ‘can I have a quote’, have a short list of questions you can ask to get the response you want. Remember to ask open questions (For example ‘What does XXX feel like?’ rather than closed questions; ‘Did xxx feel good or bad’) as you’re more likely to get an explanation rather than a one-word answer.   Always note down their answers immediately, even as they are speaking, as you don’t want to miss anything! You may find it easiest to record their answers on a dictaphone or using the voice recording feature of a mobile phone.   When you get quotes from people, make sure you use them exactly as they say them (although you can fix spelling mistakes, etc!) and attribute them.   For example: “There is always hope” says Dr. Jane Goodall, optimistically, “And the young people in Roots & Shoots are one of my main reasons for hope!”   Using the example of the Roots & Shoots Awards brief above, some of the people you would want to get quotes from include: Dr. Jane Goodall, some Roots & Shoots group members, Awards winners, teachers, other dignitaries.   Don’t forget to take down the full name and job title (if there is one) of each person so you can put the right name with the right quote!


Pictures are very important both for getting a sense of what the event was like and also for conveying information.   There’s a saying that goes ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ and it’s true! You could use lots of words trying to describe a trashion outfit, or put in a great picture of it instead.   As a general rule, aim to include at least 3 photos. You can either arrange to use someone else’s photos or take them yourself if you feel confident, and mobile phone cameras will give images with good enough quality for most websites.  For websites, pictures need to be in landscape orientation and will need to be uploaded as jpeg files. 

Checking the copy

Once you’ve written your article, don’t forget to give it a careful read and spell check it to make sure there are no mistakes. Bigger websites and media outlets will often employ someone called a copy editor to ensure what you’ve written (the ‘copy’) is ‘clean’ or free from errors, punctuation mistakes, and spelling mistakes. However, it’s really good practice to check this yourself. When you’re happy with it, then you can submit it! This might mean uploading it to a website yourself or emailing it off to the publication.

Read, enjoy, share!

Your work has been published – congratulations! Now it’s time to shout about it. Share the article with your friends and family. If you have social media accounts, or if your school or Roots & Shoots group does, then why not ask them to share it too? The more you share, the more people you’ll reach, the bigger impact your story – your journalism – will have. Good journalism is a powerful tool!

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