Increase in pass rate of first-timers suggests trainees better equipped when joining papers

Another 49 journalists have achieved senior status after passing the National Certificate Examination, acknowledged by editors as the industry’s national standard for professional journalists.

There were 79 candidates who sat the exam on Friday, 4 March at eight centres across the UK – 51 for the first time and 28 re-sits. The overall pass rate remained consistent with the previous NCE in November – at 62 per cent.

An increase in the pass rate of first-timers hints that the best potential trainees have been the ones getting the jobs and are better equipped when they join their first paper. 32 of the 51 who sat were successful – a pass rate of 63 per cent compared to 44 per cent in March 2010.

As expected, there were fewer entries for the March NCE than this time last year, in line with the downturn of recruitment in the industry two years ago.

However, there has been a 50 per cent increase in registrations of trainees in the last six months when compared to the same period in 2009/10 – signalling a possible return to previous numbers.

There are four sections which make up the NCE: news interview; news report; newspaper practice; and logbook.

The chief examiner was particularly encouraged by the rise in the pass rate for the news interview exam – which increased from 74 per cent at the end of last year to 80 per cent as 51 out of 64 candidates passed.

“It was good to see the pass rate in the interview section increase again, with candidates this time given the challenge of producing a story about a murder inquiry which had just been launched,” he said.

The story centred on a teacher and farmer’s wife who, after going to confront bikers on her farmland, was found unconscious with a serious head injury, from which she later died.

Police recovered her mobile phone from the scene and found dramatic footage of the confrontation which had been filmed by the victim herself.

The aim was for candidates to illicit further information about the incident by conducting a face-to-face interview with a detective chief inspector from the local police force.

Examiners were pleased to see a number of candidates give the full drama of the confrontation, the abuse and the footage cutting out. However, they said some omitted vital details of the event, touched on it only briefly or failed to include it altogether.

“Most candidates did a good job of outlining the story and included plenty of biographical details about Mrs Halloran, her family and that she was a strong woman who was prepared to confront anyone doing anything wrong. All helped to build up a picture of the victim,” the examiners said.

But despite the pleasing results in the interview section it was clear that candidates once again found the news report exam hard-going.

The examiners attributed this to problems with candidates’ shorthand and the tendency to take a verbatim note rather than listening and noting the essentials for the story.

Another topical exam, this time the news report was about a failing business which had been forced into administration – something the examiners said most reporters were likely to have encountered on their patch

The pass rate decreased slightly from 67 per cent in November to 65 per cent, with 48 of the 74 candidates successful.

The failing business was an iconic British holiday brand, known as Sea Dunes Holiday Park, which catered for up to 5,000 holidaymakers a week. Administrators had been appointed to run the family-owned company, study its income and expenditure and prepare it for sale.

Examiners stressed that the news report section is about selecting relevant information, both from the brief and the speech. Candidates were expected to produce a comprehensive story of 300 words with a balance of accurate quotes and reported speech to improve the basic detail.

“News report is not solely a test of a reporter’s ability to take down shorthand and report a speech but it does highlight which reporters have good solid shorthand and which ones don’t.

“This section is probably the only time in a reporter’s career where someone will check what the reporter writes against what was actually said – and examiners found some deviations which in isolated cases would have necessitated correction,” they added.

The newspaper practice exam once again showed reporters have a strong grasp of the legal issues they face – a pass rate of 80 per cent, 52 candidates out of 65, matching November’s result. 

In part A, candidates were tasked with answering law questions on covering court and defamation – issues that reporters are likely to encounter every day.

The examiners said: “The NCTJ is not trying to produce Silks but journalists who understand the law and how restrictive, or not, it is and how to get the best out of stories that come their way.”

Part B tested their ability to see the potential of a story and how to make the most of opportunities provided by newspapers, the web and social media.

It was pointed out by the examiners that those who did well showed originality as well as covering the basics. They also had good sources and made use of them with penetrating questions.

In the logbook section there was another high pass rate of 96 per cent – with 51 out of the 53 candidates who submitted entries achieving success.

The examiners said: “A solid pass rate has underlined the fact that candidates, despite the increased pressures of the current working environment, are rising to the challenge, and shows what a broad range of skills they possess and that they can express this through their logbook.”