THE coronavirus pandemic has caused a surge of support for aspiring journalists, but making it work requires more than time from both sides. Here is how to effectively manage a mentor-mentee relationship from a distance
The coronavirus pandemic has made it a tough time to be a journalism student. University lecturers and news days are now hosted online, and work experience opportunities have dried up as news organisations pivoted to remote working.
It can be a lonely and stressful experience as a result. There has arguably never been a more pressing time for a friendly face to provide some words of wisdom or encouragement.
Throughout the pandemic, more professional journalists have recognised this area of need and have been offering up such support in the form of free online classes and masterclasses and mentorship opportunities.
One of those offering support was BBC broadcast journalist Theo Chikomba, who put a call-out to Twitter at the start of last year offering five students the opportunity to be mentored by him.
In the video, recorded in the BBC studio, he recalls feeling as though once his internship was over, there was no longer anyone there to answer the questions he had. By offering himself as a mentor, Chikomba hoped that he would be a port of call for other students.
“In January, I thought this is a good year to get out there and help others in the situation I was in, not too long ago,” says Chikomba, in a podcast with Journalism.co.uk.
After studying broadcast journalism at the University of Salford, graduating in 2017, Chikomba completed his masters in political communications, Communication and Media Studies at Goldsmiths, London.
What do mentors look for in a mentee?
Such opportunities have seen high competition for places, more so the case after March when the coronavirus pandemic really started to become an issue. Chikomba received more than 50 messages in the weeks that followed his call out. Whittling the selection down to five was challenging, but he said the biggest difference between successful and unsuccessful applicants was their determination.
“I was looking for someone who’s keen,” he recalls. “Even if they haven’t tried to get work experience from every single company, they’ve been doing things at university. Or maybe if they haven’t got to that stage, they’re looking for work experience.”
What do mentees look for in a mentor?
One of Chikomba’s successful applicants was Ishwari Yardi, a film, photography and media student at the University of Leeds. She says that having an industry contact amongst the ensuing chaos of covid-19 has been transformative.
“Theo’s been really helpful to me throughout and he’s spoken to me through different periods, just to make sure I’m on the right track, motivated and focused,” she explains.
Yardi hoped that having Chikomba as a mentor would provide her with guidance straight from the industry. Through the mentorship, the students were relayed information about events and other opportunities to gain work experience and build their networks, something that Yardi believes they would not have been aware of otherwise.
What makes a good mentorship?
Journalists like Chikomba who organise mentorship opportunities do so off their own backs. But being an effective mentor is about more than simply giving up your time and setting up Zoom calls, he says.
Mentoring is, at its core, about helping someone else acquire new skills and contacts through their superior experience and knowledge in their field.
“A mentor is someone you look up to who has experience. Otherwise you can’t be telling someone about an experience that you don’t have,” says Chikomba.
This is achieved, they both agree, through striking a balance between providing reassurance and reality.
For instance, many journalism hopefuls are told that breaking into their field is tough. So the mentor must honestly convey the difficulty of that goal, while not putting them off trying and assuring them it is possible through various actions.
More than that, Chikomba says that mentors must follow through on their commitments. Do not leave mentees hanging, and only offer yourself up if you have the time and energy available. In addition, it can be useful for mentors to be transparent about some of their past failings.
“A lot of us, myself included, don’t tell everyone that we’ve done 300 applications and we’ve got rejected and we’ve been to interviews and it’s gone terrible,” he says.
Case in point, he shared some awkward job application experiences where he had applied for roles he did not actually want or fully understand. Mentors should distill the lessons, in this case, emphasise the importance of researching the publication or programme before you apply, and how it fits into your career plan.
Chikomba has had a mixture of mentors throughout his career so far, one of those being Huw Edwards, presenter for BBC News at Ten. Something which has always stuck with Chikomba is when Edwards had told him: “Don’t think about what other people say to you. Just do it. Because if you want to reach somewhere, you are going to do it.”