Category: Journalist Role

Dear Younger Self: Push Back, Take Risks, Be Aware (Carnival of Journalism)

The Carnival of Journalism Assignment: “For December I would like you all to write a letter to your younger self. You can write about anything, no rules, no apologies. You may like to share with yourself advice, things to look out for, things you wished you did differently, regrets, hopes, what you’ve learned, about your life, choices… or just about anything that is on your mind. Ideally these are deeply personal to you and I hope it’ll be enlightening to others in its universality to the human condition.”

Dear Self,

All of the other bloggers are writing incredibly profound and insightful comments to their younger selves. Today, you feel somewhat humbled in their company. Every time you go to craft a worthy advice column that will be enlightening to the human condition, everything seems preachy and cliche. The truth is, young Self, I could tell you all sorts of things to watch out for (editors with personal agendas, that liar you trusted on the beat, lima beans) or to pay more attention to (that HTML class you took, that stats class you took, those cookies in the oven). But you won’t really listen. In your 20s, you thought you knew everything already. (Heck, at 12 you thought you knew everything). You had travelled the world. Lived in France. Your work had been seen by hundreds of thousands of people. You knew how to do your homework before an interview already. You knew not to make stuff up. You knew how to pretend you knew what was going on even when you didn’t. You pretended so well you even convinced yourself. Youth, you thought, was not wasted on THIS youth. What could an older Self possibly have to share with you?

Self, now you’re in your 40s. I’m here to tell you: you do not matter so much. That’s pretty blasphemous both in the culture you grew up in and in today’s sticker world where your kids get claps and hugs just for not playing a video game. I’ll say it a different way: everything around you – everyONE around you – matters more.

So yes, yes, you were very prescient to be learning HTML in your 20s when most people around you thought “online” meant the wait at the movies and email was a novel phase. Yes yes, you are very brilliant. But um… Self? Why didn’t you stick with it? Keep building web pages? So that you had to relearn it again when you turned 40 so you could talk about it with these other young Selves you are now teaching so they don’t miss out on opportunities? Think of how much more helpful you could have been in your subsequent newsrooms as you watched them struggle with digital transitions.

And true, true, you and your fellow reporters thought yourselves fighting the good fight afflicting the comfortable and all that. But you shied away from chances to really probe inequities — class, racial, gender — that you saw all around you. You really spent way too much time writing about annual reports and company perspective than you had to. At some point you will finally do all the reading you should be doing in your 20s and conduct the interviews that you should have done along the way to help you really grasp what disparity looks like. You thought you knew and you did understand in an abstract way, but not really in a nitty-gritty-reality-check way. What if you had opened your eyes sooner while you were regularly reaching so many people?

And yes, yes, perhaps you were right not to take the web reporting job and stick with the safe gig at a print newspaper in Vermont; after all that .com company folded within a couple years and you thrived on the business beat with the help of that incredible staff of mentors at the Burlington Free Press. You thought yourself quite the smartie. But what if you had taken the less safe path for once? What if you had taken yourself just a little less seriously, given yourself over to chance just a little bit more, and opened yourself up much more to mistake and failure than you did?

I guess we don’t know, Self.

Somewhere along the way, Self, you finally figured out in your 40s how little you really know. And that lesson — the knowledge that many, many, many more lessons await — is probably the most important one you’ve had so far.

Journalists as chroniclers or tricksters? Two speakers offer much different versions of reporters

Journalists have a serious, serious PR problem.

I was thinking this as I listened to a speaker from a University of Wisconsin-Madison Go Big Read Event on. Oct. 19 when 180 high school and college English students came together to discuss the nonfiction novel, Enrique’s Journey. I was asked to launch the event with 15 minutes about literary journalism and how the book by Sonia Nazario worked as an example of that genre. (You can read my remarks here.)

Enrique’s Journey is the story of a boy whose mother had left him at the age of five to travel to the United States. Nazario, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, spent months documenting Enrique’s search for this mother, particularly the deadly immigrant path across the Texan border via train tops. She won a Pulitzer Prize for the series as it ran in the newspaper and turned the whole thing into a riveting book.

The cover of the book

In my talk to the high school students, I focused on how journalism can be broken down into myth, chronicle and story (which comes from several scholars but most notably Bird & Dardenne’s seminal work in the Social Construction of News). I talked about why stories are often framed the way they are, and how news accounts are woven using mythic qualities and chronicling motivations. I emphasized how good literary journalism teaches, that we can grow from a good story about the truth, and that we can vow to be better people because of it.

After the students spent an hour discussing the book in Socratic groups, the final speaker took the microphone to caution students about the power of media and specifically, how journalists often misrepresent or completely ignore the plights of immigrants.

Some quotes from her talk:

“By understanding the role of the media, we can create our own ideas about what is real.”

Media apparently give us a “package reality” that is “often false.”

“We have to make our own realities.”

“The news only tells you part of the story.”

“Be media literate so nobody can fool you.”

She ended with this last. I was interested in this in particular. I agreed that students need to learn how to be media literate. I agreed that reporters can only tell part of any story (it’s hard to include every part of every event in just a few words or minutes of video).

But a whole lot of questions buzzed around in my head: Why did she think journalists were trying to fool her? Is she conflating “media” with “journalism?” How would people go about “making their own realities,” exactly? (And a press theorist cannot help but be reminded of Walter Lippmann’s “picture in our heads” essay that described how the press is responsible for forming people’s view of the world they could not see).

I saw students nodding during her talk, and I hoped they would not go away thinking about journalism along the same lines. I understood the frustration, particularly for minorities who are often portrayed as stereotypes or completely absent in news accountings. But journalists like Nazario, who travelled on those trains to relay Enrique’s journey across the border, risk their lives to tell stories so people can learn and understand others’ experiences. And there are some great ones out there.

And then I heard the students’ takeaways from the book, the discussions, and the event:

“I will be more willing to understand why people are willing to take risks,”

“I will be more grateful for the parents that I have because Enrique did not have that opportunity.”

“I hope we take what we learned here and we do not forget about it so that we can apply it to our lives one day and to the lives of our parents.”

“I think it’s important to remember we don’t know people’s background and not judging a book by its cover.”

“I learned how much risk someone will take to come here.”

“I learned to be thankful for what I have.”

These students were nobody’s fools. And they learned all of this from a journalist.

Some J-Student Therapy

Journalism students having identity crises seem to be visiting my office lately, seeking counsel. Their uncertainty has moved me to write this blog post. I tend to relay one message to them: Despite all the industry turmoil, despite the very real concerns they might not be able to make a living as a professional writer, despite the hard work being a reporter entails, the job of journalist trumps most other jobs I can think of.

I’m not sure what other day-to-day job provides the opportunity to ride along in police cruisers, drive farm tractors, fly model airplanes the size of a classroom, talk to a creator of the Manhattan Project, talk to a creator of the Internet, hang out in emergency rooms, access backstage, effect legislative change, learn how to invest money, meet famous people, sail, fish, network, hear how a woman covered with external benign tumors aimed to make someone laugh every day, interview presidential candidates, know how a town operates, analyze tax code, discover that I could talk to anyone about anything, understand how to find information on just about anyone and anything and then to write a story about it all — on deadline.

(Um. Of course, it also provided me with the opportunity to get shit on by cows, ruin countless pairs of shoes, miss parts of my brother’s wedding, spend Black Friday in the middle of Wal-Mart, wallow in an empty newsroom on Christmas Day, get my car broken into doing a story in a bad part of town, be lied to often, endanger myself trying to chase the police chase, and — the worst worst days — write sad, sad stories about death. But even these situations taught me something, each and every one: never wear white to a farm, carry extra boots in my car, videotape weddings, bring my checkbook to work on Black Friday, host Christmas the next day, buy anti-theft devices, learn how to spot a liar, drive fast well, and develop empathy and compassion for my fellow human beings.)

Don’t get me wrong: I love my new career as a professor. I find infinite satisfaction in teaching and enjoy immersing myself as a researcher. I fancy that I can make something of a difference investigating the industry by providing pragmatic recommendations. Still, as a journalist, my faith in humanity was alternatively destroyed and rebuilt — often in the span of a single day. It was worth all the sad paychecks and long work days and professional instability and corporate politics.

Dear students, please try it out. Take a chance, if only for a little while. I don’t think you will be disappointed. And in the process, our democracy might grow just a wee bit healthier for your decision.

911 Anniversary

Hoping people are watching the 911 anniversary coverage today.
Always interesting to see how the journalists remember — and how they ask the nation to remember — during major anniversaries such as this. The re-remembering that happens is especially important to note. Research has shown that the journalists’ constant self reflexivity is a way to give them authority to tell and retell this story. Their “I-was-there!” sharing is an important part of the grieving ritual, a way to help the country move from victim to survivor.