The rules I live by

CNN journalist and Nottingham Girls’ High School alumna, Alexandra King, on the rules that she lives by.

Great storytellers are everywhere. They make our lives rich.

Learn from them. Whenever you find yourself warming to anyone new in your life – whether it’s a new friend, or a receptionist or a bartender, it’s usually because, whatever the subject matter, they are a great storyteller. They have conveyed information to you in a way that made you feel entertained and seen. Some of my best ideas have come from encounters with everyone from grumpy taxi drivers to chatty dentists to curious five-year-olds. Keep your eyes and ears open. And your favourite storytellers close.

The best ideas come from asking simple questions.

I spent much of 2019 reporting in the US/Mexico borderlands, making a film about the many thousands of migrants who have died or gone missing in the Sonoran Desert. I found a lot of bodies, and a series of paupers’ graveyards where migrants had been buried unceremoniously and with little or no documentation. That story started with a simple question, which, as it turned out, did not have a simple answer: “We know people are dying, but where are the bodies

Listening is a superpower.

When I first started out in journalism, the ‘ideal’ model of cutting-edge reporting was still a very bombastic stereotype – the Jeremy Paxman-type interview, with lots of shouting and finger pointing. It took some time for me to learn that this wasn’t my style, nor should it be, and that was just fine. In my opinion, great journalism is rarely about a decisive take down or catching someone out. It’s about listening. Especially in my work, where I often meet people who have experienced severe, life-altering trauma, I find there is tremendous power in softness.

The question I find myself asking time and time again, the ones that elicit the best and most powerful answers, are so simple they can seem child-like. What was your thought? What did it sound like? What did it feel like in your heart

Competitiveness is dumb and makes you mean and slow. There’s space for all of us.

It’s so easy to become weighed down by comparisons, especially in a social media-driven world where we are bombarded with insidious images that nurture a sneaking suspicion that everyone else is, in fact cleverer or prettier or richer or more successful. In journalism, there’s a very real pressure to get the story first. Sometimes you hit, sometimes you miss. But there isn’t a limited quota of success to go round – meaning jealousy, resentment and back stabbing can be parked at the door. Your success can only, and will only, ever belong to you. So ignore the noise and go and get it.

“Your success can only, and will only, ever belong to you. So ignore the noise and go and get it.”

Gold stars are false idols.

Exposing wrongdoing and injustice necessarily involves asking very hard questions. Some of my best work has involved really, really annoying people along the way, and honestly, this took some getting used to. I was, as girls still are, socialised to follow the rules and not make a fuss. I’m still always battling a part of me that wants to be seen as ‘good,’ or ‘nice’. I’m subconsciously looking for those gold stars! I don’t enjoy being kicked out of political meetings, literally kicked by angry crowds in the DRC or having a prison officer in West Virginia physically try and grab my camera from my hand (totally illegal, by the way). However, I have learned that aggressive reactions or being told that something can’t be done because of an arbitrary rule or piece of bureaucracy usually means that I’m on the right path and I have to keep fighting. In short, if you’re not annoying someone, the work probably isn’t your best. Breaking the rules is a great substitute for stars.

Ask for more money.

Several years ago, I decided on a new rule when it came to talking about money. Whenever a potential future employer asked me what my ‘ideal’ annual salary was, I would think of the number that my most confident male colleague would ask for. Then I’d add 10 grand. I wish I had started doing this years before I did, because the gender pay gap is real, ladies.