Last week, I found myself at a medical conference, among rows of doctors, scientists and researchers, as gene therapies for treating degenerative eye conditions were revealed. It was all thoroughly fascinating and I typed like fury as the speakers unveiled their discoveries. But what was I doing there? I have no medical qualifications; I gave up all science subjects while still at school. I was armed only with my lifelong fascination for matters medical, which has enabled me to pick up enough information by osmosis to write an article about the conference for The Irish Medical Times.
When you’re starting off in journalism, you’re often advised to develop an area of expertise. Given that my areas of expertise, the arts and disability, yielded little possibility of ongoing work, I ended up not heeding that advice. And I believe it has benefited my career. Journalism is about stories and the journalist’s main duty is to find these stories and transmit them to an audience in a way they can understand. They do not need mastery of their chosen topic to do this.
In fact, it can work to their advantage. Though the Irish Medical Times is a trade publication, it’s aimed at a general medical audience. If I were an expert in the field of gene therapy, I might have weighed down my article with so much complex terminology that it would have been gobbledygook to all but the most specialised practitioners. Instead, I was free to think about what would interest my audience, in this case, the benefits of these therapies to patients. Because I was viewing the conference with fresh eyes, I like to think I let a little of my wide eyed wonder leak into my article, reminding the doctors that even in difficult economic circumstances, incredible medical advances are still being made.
A journalist is required to have a good base level of general knowledge to work from. But what’s more important is that they know who to talk to. A journalist I met at an NUJ conference spoke about the envy some of his colleagues felt when he landed an interview with artist Tracy Emin. After all, what did he know about Tracy Emin? He pointed out that it didn’t matter that he didn’t know much about art. He knew how to track her down and coax interesting, relevant information from her.
Again, this has worked well in my own career. A few years ago, I was given a tip-off about the effects of the recently imposed salmon-driftnetting ban on Waterford fishermen. I was freelancing for The Irish Examiner at the time. I was put in touch with some valuable contacts and won myself a spread on the regional newspapers. I realised that there was further potential in the story and contacted a fishing magazine with it. I was given my own column, covering South-East issues. I was chosen not because of my in-depth knowledge of the EU quota system, but because I knew how to reach the important people on the ground.
That was almost three years ago and I’m still writing the column to this day. While I don’t come from a fishing background, I’ve developed a library of trusted sources who supply me with all the information I need. This gives my column an air of authority and makes it relevant to the fishermen. If you’re an expert in a subject, you’re thinking about the issues involved. Because I’m not weighed down by that baggage, I can concentrate on the people behind the news, both those who feature in it and those who consume it.
If you feel that you’d like to write, but don’t have a particular area of expertise, there are plenty of other routes to success. Your own contacts could yield a bounty of stories and provide you with a ready made source to draw on. If there’s a local story that you feel needs to be told, let that be your guide when you approach media outlets. It could be about a historical figure who made a significant contribution, or a unique scheme that’s making a difference to the lives of the people in your area. Once you’ve attracted the attention of your chosen outlet, you can do all the research you need to ensure that your story rings true.