This time last year I had an inkling that my job as an editor for OhmyNews international wasn't safe. I wanted to make sure that I would be able to continue my media journey so I applied to study an MA in journalism at a British university. My instinct was correct, and last summer I was one of the three members of the OMNI editorial team to leave the world's most successful citizen journalism website.
Thanks to OMNI featured writer Chris Gelken, who was then the editor of The Korea Herald, I spent seven weeks volunteering as a copyeditor and reporter in Seoul before returning to my native Britain. In September I started my MA.
In a small way I felt like a bit of a traitor. While working for OMNI I had become rather keen on the cause of untrained journalists and now here I was seeking professional qualifications. I was also curious; would I change my views on qualifications for journalists?
I still think citizen journalists don't need qualifications, but there are some useful things that the British ones should know.
The course I'm taking is accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ). The NCTJ was founded in 1951 and is an independent registered charity with its own trading company. As well as accrediting academic degrees, it offers short courses and individual certificates that can be taken at recognized centers or by distance learning.
From my perspective as a student on an NCTJ accredited course, it is difficult to gauge the organization's exact degree of importance in British journalism. That knowledge will only come after I have met a very large number of journalists. My impression is that it's difficult for a beginner to work as a reporter at a newspaper without NCTJ qualifications.
The NCTJ offers seven preliminary certificates in journalism that are followed after 18 months in the job by the National Certificate Examination. On my course we are studying for an M.A. and the seven preliminary certificates at the same time.
Would citizen journalists benefit from studying for the certificates or buying the course books? Some British ones would. Two of the preliminary certificates are dedicated to law. Their purpose is to make sure that journalists don't make factual errors or break the law when reporting on court cases and to ensure they know how to avoid being sued for libel.
In England and Wales the curricula for both certificates are drawn from a book called McNae's Essential Law for Journalists. In Scotland they use Scots Law for Journalists.
British citizen journalists who want to report on court stories or write risky things about people should buy the latest edition of one or the other for their own safety. The U.K. has a lot of rules about what can or can't be written about court cases and our libel law is somewhat fierce. The consequences of breaking the law include fines, imprisonment and being asked to pay the costs of a retrial.
Local and central public affairs are the subject of two further certificates. I have found these interesting because I knew fairly little about how modern Britain works (I was an historian before joining OMNI). I don't think citizen journalists need to worry about them however. If you want to write about the NHS (National Health Service) or local taxes, you can find handy guides on the Web. All the departments of government have Web sites that explain what they do and who's responsible for what.
British citizen journalists certainly don't need to worry about the NCTJ news writing exam, which tests students on their ability to write in tabloid newspaper style. (Buy a writing book if you have trouble expressing yourself.) They also shouldn't concern themselves with the NCTJ portfolio, which is basically a folder of your published work.
The seventh certificate is for a shorthand system called Teeline. British reporters are now expected to be able to take notes in Teeline at 100 words a minute. Teeline seems old fashioned in this digital world, but it's a necessary skill because recording devices aren't allowed into places such as courts of law and local council meetings.
Some people find Teeline easy to learn and others struggle with it. If you've ever found yourself without a tape recorder while interviewing someone you will realize that it is useful.
The NCTJ certificates basically equip students with the knowledge required to work on British newspapers, where as journalists they will be expected to report on legal and governmental matters. They aren't necessary for British citizen journalists but they do give an idea of the issues that some need to think about.
There are many different types of journalist in this world. My experience here at university has taught me that sometimes qualifications are necessary, but only for those who want particular jobs.
Certificates such as NCTJ law reassure many British newspaper editors that their new reporter has met a certain standard of knowledge and won't get the company sued.
This has less to do with being a good journalist in the universal sense than with being suitable for hire at a certain time and place.