I’ve been busy running refresher courses for the NCTJ’s National Certificate Examinations over the past three weeks.
These are very satisfying for me and – I think – valuable for the delegates. Satisfying for me because there are quantifiable outcomes. I try to teach the young journalists how to pass the exams: to see what is required to give the examiners what they are looking for.
If they pass, I’ve done my job; if they don’t, I haven’t.
There is a lot of respect for – and some suspicion of - the NCEs. They are treated with respect because they are tough. Pass rates are routinely 50 to 60 per cent for first-timers. There is a degree of suspicion because some wonder if they are needlessly tough, and whether they seek to apply standards that are not reflected in everyday regional journalism.
In my view they are only as tough as they need to be to ensure that those who earn the title of senior journalist deserve it. And they come tolerably close to replicating the circumstances in which journalists work. Of course, they could be closer, and I have some thoughts on how they might better replicate real work conditions, but they do a pretty good job.
In my view, what is often lacking is an understanding - on the part of candidates – of what is required to gain a good mark in the exams. Competently delivered refreshers ought to address that concern.
The key is showing students how to approach the three papers.
I remind them of their driving test. Remember all that mirror, signal, manoeuvre malarkey? What was that all about?
It was about demonstrating to the examiner that you were a safe driver. To do that the learner needed to make it abundantly clear that they were doing the right things – hence all the exaggerated mirror, signal, manoeuvre stuff. No matter that once the L-plates were ripped in half the newly-qualified driver would burn off and drive just like the rest of us.
The NCE is all about demonstrating to the examiner that you are a competent, safe journalist. It’s mirror, signal, manoeuvre time all over again. The Newspaper Practice paper – one of three examinations – seeks to determine if the candidate is someone who can be sent to court and not land the paper with a legal problem; and someone who can take a tip-off and develop it into a fully rounded story for their paper.
The News Interview paper is there to demonstrate that candidates can conduct an interview in such a way that they extract all the important information from the interviewee, and that they can write a story that makes the most of what they are told.
The News Report paper requires candidates to take a bundle of briefing papers and then listen to a speech from which they must extract three or four key quotes.
The problem comes – for too many candidates – when they enter the exam room. Too many have never seen examples of the papers they are now sitting. That puts them at a huge disadvantage. I can’t imagine taking any exam without studying past papers to get a clear idea of what to expect.
It’s true that, for News Interview and News Report, you can’t revise. But you can know what is required. So, for News Interview, you will need three or four key quotes, and to gain from your questioning a clear outline of the story – best achieved by taking the interviewee through a full chronology of events. If candidates then get the main point in the intro, follow with one or two pars to introduce subsidiary themes, and follow this with a killer quote, they are off to a very good start. If they then feed in three pars of vivid description of events, go on to give a couple more quotes and a solid three or four pars of detail, they will probably be home and dry – as long as they don’t make any silly mistakes.
With the News Interview, a similar structure will again work well. What candidates need to blend into their answer is a good range of detail from the briefing papers, three or four quotes from the speech, plus some additional facts that can only be gained from the speaker.
With the News Practice paper, candidates often show a reasonable knowledge of law, but demonstrate an inability to apply it to the scenario outlined in the question. It only takes two or three hours during a refresher to convert their raw legal knowledge into a sound ability to put this knowledge into practice. In the second part of the practice exam, they have to take a couple of story tips and develop them for their own paper. Once again, once they have mastered the necessity of a thoroughmirror, signal, manoeuvre approach, they quickly get the hang of passing this section.
In the latest retakes, the pass rate was up to an impressive 67 per cent. Now, if more of those second-time-around success stories had been given the benefit of refreshers before their first efforts, I’ll bet a significantly greater proportion would have passed first time.