Justine McCarthy, the award-winning Sunday Times columnist, paid her first visit to UL’s journalism department last week following her appointment as adjunct professor.
She spoke to undergraduate journalists about the importance of ethical issues - such as often having to make split-second decisions while interviewing people and drew on her 30-year experience as a working journalist.
She warned of the dangers of what was once known in the trade as ‘ligging’ - accepting inappropriate favours from people who are seeking positive coverage and thus undermining journalistic credibility.
She recounted how a well known banker in Dublin was often positioned on his stool in the local pub where many young journalists came to eat lunch. She said he would often ask them if they wanted a mortgage, at a favourable rate.
In more recent times, when it came to writing about Ireland’s financial crisis, many of these same journalists who might have received ‘special mortgages’ found themselves compromised when it came to writing about the issue.
Young journalists were also warned not to become “flashes in the pan”.
Journalism is an exciting career, Ms McCarthy said, but there are pitfalls and it’s vitally important to be aware of them.
The former Sunday Tribune reporter said it was now being put on journalists to “behave in the national interest”, as was said not long ago by a prominent Irish politician on Morning Ireland.
But, she added, journalists’ interests are those of their listeners or readers. Their commitment is to the truth - not to the country.
Having mentioned to another well known Irish journalist, the Limerick-born Vincent Browne, that she was coming to Limerick and proposing to talk about ethics, she said his advice was to “never do anything you would be ashamed of if somebody found out you did it”.
So she advised the budding journalists present: don’t lie, don’t use subterfuge, don’t browbeat people - because there are better and more honourable ways to get your story.
The new addition to the journalism team at UL also warned students not to use the classic tabloid trick, which amounts to telling people: “You might as well talk to me, because we’re going to be writing it anyway and you know we will paint you in a worse light if you don’t tell us.”
“Your story,” she said, “will be much stronger if you haven’t relied on those tactics. Use your own qualities to get your stories.”
That could mean charm or a brass neck, or just an ability to make contacts and connections.
“One of the hardest things for people is to be able to tell their stories, if they want to tell them,” she said, adding that marginalised people are often grateful for having their stories acknowledged.
“If a journalist’s greatest commitment is to truth,” she advised, “then a journalist’s greatest quality must be trustworthiness. Reputation will be built up if you write fairly, always respect the people in the story, and your readers.
“You have to verify your story to your total satisfaction that it’s true and if that means you don’t write the story then you don’t write it.”
Justine McCarthy spoke from her heart and was warmly received by her audience.