Leening Towards Becoming a Better Journalist in Five Simple Steps

“When I was investigating the cartel, it occurred to me that these people were going to want me killed.”-  Jeff Leen

I found myself laughing when Mr. Leen said this at his talk on Monday as part of MU’s journalism honor medal banquet. Yet in reality, it wasn’t really all that funny. Leen’s time as an investigative reporter for the Miami Herald was probably anything but funny. It was through this time, however, that he mastered the fourth component of what he believes are the five skills every journalist needs to know.


Leen discussed how he always had dreams to become “a writer with a capital W.” After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in English Literature and Drama, Leen thought he would follow the likes of history’s greatest writers and write the great American novel. He soon found disappointment in the job field, however.

“Every job I went for, I got beat out by a graduate from the University of Missouri.”

Believing that if you can’t beat them you should join them, Leen enrolled at MU for a master’s degree in advertising. He changed majors, though, when he was “bit by the journalism bug.”

It was through his classes at MU that he was able to grasp the first aspect of writing. During his lecture, Leen discussed how his professors at MU pushed him to improve his writing.  He said that his classmates and himself were taken back by the grades they received in MU’s journalism courses.

“We thought we were smart; we thought we knew what we were doing,” Leen said.

Deadline & Reporting

As Leen worked for the Missourian he experienced the pressure and exhilaration of deadlines. He said that deadlines continued to be daunting even when he worked for the Miami Herald.

He also had wide variety of reporting experiences. His first major article at the Miami Herald was to cover a dog show. Determined to write the best article about a dog show ever, Leen forgot to get the only information his editor had asked for: the name of the dog who won.

Leen’s knee-deep dive into reporting and deadlines continued throughout his time at the Miami Herald.

“I had 900 bylines after one year…I got my reporting.”

It was through this diligent work that Leen discovered his true passion for journalism.

Investigative Journalism: Hunting for Facts

Despite having figured he’d need ten years to get to the investigative team, Leen made it only five. It was here that Leen reported on court cases, murders, and the drug industry. Leen continually stressed the importance of documents throughout his entire presentation. He also said that a good investigative reporter understands documents and understands people. Leen said that writing investigative stories are tough and that people won’t always like you for writing them.

“You need time to build trust; they need to see you as a human being.”

Leen said a reporter could build trust by reinforcing the idea to a source that even though he/she may not like the story, that you’ll guarantee that it’ll be honest and fair.

Synthesis: Strategic Thinking

In his final component, Leen talked about the importance of putting everything together as a journalist.

Journalists are “hard and tough,” said Leen. In order to find success, a journalist needs to be able to apply all of the skills they’ve learned and learn how to put them together as a piece of art.

The Man Behind the Five-Step Method

Even though I originally chose to attend this session because it fit in best with my schedule, I can honestly have no regrets hearing what Leen had to say. At the end of his lecture I got to have a nice personal conversation with him. He even let me take a picture with him and meet his sister who’s a photojournalist. As you can tell, I’m not in the picture I uploaded because when I got outside and looked at the picture, I realized my eyes were closed.  Oh well, that’s life.

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