‘Not every decision is an easy one’: Spring interns reflect on new journalism experiences

This spring, the Journalism Institute welcomed its first interns: Nathaniel Liu and Alex O’Sullivan. The seniors at BASIS high school in Washington, D.C., assisted in producing programs and newsletters. That work included reporting and writing on several beats, including sports journalism, diversity and inclusion in newsrooms, press freedom, and photojournalism, that were incorporated into their senior research project.

We asked Nathaniel and Alex to reflect on what they learned about journalism, their favorite assignments, and the how their approach to writing changed.

Nathaniel Liu

Q: What have you learned about a journalist’s responsibility to readers?

A: Journalists have the basic, obvious responsibilities: to inform without holding back any information, to not mislead the public, and to separate fact from opinion. But above those are ethics. 

From my various interviews, I heard time and time again that ethics must govern journalists, even before a story begins, and long after it is published. Journalists have a responsibility to the public to not cause any harm through their reporting. For example, they should prepare before going into dangerous situations so that they don’t become a burden to emergency services. After a story is published, journalists should take care of the people who helped them tell that story, particularly locals, who might experience backlash.

Q: What was one of your biggest writing or reporting challenges during this time? 

A: It’s very difficult to write a piece when one of the primary subjects doesn’t consistently respond to emails. My final story took about five weeks to pan out and, while I’m happy with the final result, I’m frustrated that it took so long. With each subject who didn’t respond, I had to change the direction of the story. In the end, I wrote the piece with the one interview I could get and explored that perspective in depth.

Q: Writing is a craft. What are a few ways your writing has improved during this time? 

A: Audience-oriented writing is really encouraged at the National Press Club Journalism Institute. It would have to be, since they write journalism tips for journalists. In the first weeks, my supervisors often asked me who was the intended audience of whichever piece I was editing at the time. Gradually, I began asking myself that question, and we could focus on other details during the editing process. I’m certain that my writing in the coming years will be more stimulating as I think about my audience.

I have also learned how to write more like a journalist. There are certain ways to format quotes and punctuation — including the devious em dash versus en dash — that I didn’t know about before and somehow had never come up in my various English classes. 

Q: What experience/assignment did you enjoy the most, and why? 

A: Besides our delicious farewell lunch, I would say the experience of conducting interviews. A few of them were rockier than others since it took me time to get used to the idea of interviewing someone as a representative of a bigger organization. My previous interviews were almost entirely all for my own projects, but people know the Journalism Institute and expect a certain level of professionalism. Very quickly though, I found my bearings and was able to conduct interviews that were enjoyable for both sides. With my access thanks to the Journalism Institute, I could interview a photojournalist reporting from Ukraine, one of D.C.’s most well-known citizen journalists, and many more.

Alex O’Sullivan

Q: What have you learned about a journalist’s responsibility to readers?

A: I have learned that journalists universally have an ethical code, set of standards, and commitment to storytelling. But I have also learned that journalists are juggling a lot of information and perspective that goes into deciding what stories they should tell and how they ought to do it. Each choice a journalist makes is intentional and sometimes debatable among a journalist’s peers. Not every decision is an easy one, and sometimes journalists will disagree on how to report a story. But I think every journalist I have worked with would agree that the fundamental core of journalism is rooted in conveying to people the information, news, and stories a journalist thinks a community needs to hear.

Q: What was one of your biggest writing or reporting challenges during this time? 

A: Getting people to respond to email was the greatest obstacle to reporting on the work journalists were doing. My sometimes-fluctuating personal schedule with college visits, extracurricular commitments, and other normal high school-senior life moments got in the way too.

Q: Writing is a craft. What are a few ways your writing has improved during this time? 

A: I learned how to write ledes and headlines, which were entirely new journalistic writing skills I picked up during this time. I think producing intentional and effective questions to ask during interviews is another important skill. Summarizing and synthesizing information became a lot easier, too. I gained experience editing interview transcripts which was a ton of fun, and I also think I sharpened my email-writing skills, too.

Q: What experience/assignment did you enjoy the most, and why? 

A: My favorite experiences were all the in-person opportunities visiting the Press Club and specifically attending the “Bring Them Home” documentary about the story of a journalist being wrongfully detained abroad. I found it a very compelling and effective documentary. I also appreciated the opportunity to ask a question to the makers of the film during the panel afterward. My favorite assignment was interviewing Amethyst J. Davis, founder of the “Harvey World Herald”, and then editing our interview into a publishable Q&A. She was an awesome interview subject, and she does amazing and inspirational work for her community and journalism as a whole. Seeing the passion and fulfillment she gains from doing her job as the only full-time staffer for her local community paper still drives me and makes me want to be just like her in whatever career or path I choose in life. 

Read Alex and Nathaniel’s work here: 

Citizen journalism: A different perspective for local news 

Conflict photography: Telling Ukraine’s story

Fixers: The people at the core of international journalism

Writing online: How to strike the right balance between engaging and clickbait

Ethical considerations for journalists covering athletes accused of serious crimes

How to bulletproof your story when fact is a 4-letter word

‘It resonates with young people so much’: How a local newsroom founder builds trust in her community

Capturing your story: From the Tidal Basin to the newsroom

The National Press Club Journalism Institute produces a variety of educational programs that can benefit journalists at any stage in their careers. We also administer the National Press Club scholarships, typically offered at the beginning of the spring semesters. Support our work with student journalists – the future of our profession – with a donation today.

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