Restoring a Sense of What It Means To Be a Journalist
Most people instinctively want to teach others what they know. And journalists are no exception. It is our job, after all, to share with our readers, viewers and listeners what we discover in the course of our reporting. But many of us also have an impulse to try to convince others to agree with our
It was this cluster of ideas that I brought with me into the classroom last spring when I began working as a teaching assistant for an entry-level journalism class at the University of Missouri. After college I had worked as a reporter at a small newspaper, but after two years I felt I needed to return to journalism school to learn more about the profession before continuing in it.
As a teaching assistant, I felt one of my primary roles was to explain the need for journalism’s “norms” (such as passing along the admonition about impartiality) to help 19 young journalists understand and put into practice the profession’s “rules.” It was not my place, I thought, to question the status quo of the profession or even encourage my students to challenge the way journalism is practiced today.
Then, late one afternoon in the early part of the semester, I had a revealing conversation with Karyn, a doe-eyed and sweet-voiced freshman. Prior to this, she had talked candidly about her dreams of becoming a political correspondent in Washington, D.C., even as media coverage of happenings in the capital was drawing public rebuke. We talked about a lecture we had both heard in class earlier that week. The lecturer, a professor in the school’s television department, did exactly what I vowed I wouldn’t do. He tried to encourage the students to challenge some of what could be called the “norms” of journalism.
Specifically, he argued that the members of the media ought to be much more careful when they creates heroes. He gave examples of how some in the media transformed celebrities into heroes even when they’d done nothing heroic. Then he described how those same reporters were quick to knock those “heros” off their pedestals when public sentiment turned sour. He challenged the students to look for the real heroes and to find ways to hold their actions and beliefs up as examples for everyone to emulate.
His lecture inspired Karyn; she told me she left that class with a renewed sense of purpose about the profession she had chosen. She told me she agreed wholeheartedly with his message and intended to challenge the hero-making-and-breaking cycle of news reporting when she started working.
While I’d agreed with the lecturer’s views about the recklessness of some media coverage, I hadn’t been as inspired as Karyn was. Rather, I remember thinking that even though I didn’t like the celebrity worship I was seeing practiced by some in the media, I felt powerless to change it, so why try? But I didn’t tell Karyn that because by the time she finished talking I was feeling ashamed of my defeatist attitude. And I started to wonder: At what point in my career did I decide I couldn’t do anything to make journalism better?
As it turned out, my conversation with Karyn was only the beginning of my awakening that semester. Throughout the term, I found myself increasingly enchanted with my students’ insights on the state of journalism. Often their remarks contained a certain naiveté and a heartbreakingly sweet idealism that I realized had become almost alien to me even in the short time I’d worked in the business. I started to hear these sentiments expressed more and more often in the comments they made in class, and I began to see it in the essays they turned in: These aspiring journalists had a burgeoning desire to do good, to make the world a better place.
These students clearly wanted to change things; they hoped to make journalism more credible by doing things differently. Unlike some of us who have worked as reporters, they didn’t shrug and cast the blame elsewhere. They never accepted the rationale that the viewers want to see Dennis Rodman’s exploits, so we should feature them. They never used the excuse that news reporting is nothing more than a business.
My students believed they could maintain the integrity of their chosen profession and still satisfy its business side. They believed they could live by the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics, the edict that instructs reporters to seek truth and report it, but minimize harm.
Their idealism is vaguely familiar to me; I know I had similar feelings in the early days of my journalism career. As a 22-year-old, fresh-out-of-college reporter at a weekly newspaper in a small community, I set out to inspire with my words. I think all of us must start our first journalism job with these sorts of dreams. We remember articles that made us cry, ones that made us think, ones that inspired us to act, and we want our readers to be affected by our words in the same way. No matter how much we pay lip service to “telling the truth” and “being fair” and “fulfilling the public’s right to know,” I suspect that each of us hopes that our byline will be the one at the top of inspirational and groundbreaking stories.
But after two years of working at the community newspaper, I had become tangled up in deadline pressures and my editor’s pleadings for “award-winning stories” and had forgotten my reasons for writing stories in the first place. Like other reporters, I had become numb because of too much exposure to the squawks of the police scanner and too little contact with the people whose lives I was supposed to be reporting on. I had lost my motivation to pen the “best” stories, the kind I hoped I’d write when I entered the newsroom.
I hope my students don’t get to this point, but I am almost certain that someday, some editor will order one of my journalism students to break a trust or lie to a source to get the story. And I’d predict that someday, some publisher will kill a story one of them has written because it places an influential person in the wrong light. And I suspect that someday, one of them will justify going with a story that just slightly misrepresents some facts because there wasn’t time to reaffirm them.
Part of me wanted to prepare them for these eventualities in the “real world” they will one day inhabit. But the other part of me didn’t want to burden them with the debris of my own disillusionment. I wanted to allow their idealism to remain firmly intact because I think it’s exactly the thing journalism needs. Their idealism could be the best foe to this beleaguered profession’s current lack of credibility, to the “good enough” attitude that sometimes exists in newsrooms today.
Obviously, there’s a cleft between the public’s perspectives and journalists’ sense of proportion when it comes to certain situations, most noticeably perhaps in the recent Washington scandal coverage. And there’s no question that cleft contributes to the increasing absence of believability that the press appears to engender with the public. My students, still part of “the public” and not yet journalists, reminded me of this disconnection with their reactions to various ethical dilemmas we discussed in class.
As I reflected on their comments, I realized that this gulf of distrust could be a result of something a student named Jennifer pointed out in class. Her remarks echoed an idea I first read in an essay by former New York Times reporter and columnist Anna Quindlen.
In the essay, Quindlen described a time she cried while interviewing the parents of a missing boy. Though she realized the story was gut-wrenchingly sad and knew the tears were a natural reaction, she was still angry at herself for acting in a manner she thought was unprofessional. “I thought that what was the right response for a human being was the wrong response for a reporter,” she wrote.
I am sure Quindlen’s experience is common among journalists. Traits and “rules” that make us good reporters are often quite different from those that make us decent citizens in our private lives. In other words, to do our jobs well as journalists, we must sometimes abandon the things we value most in friends, neighbors and role models: compassion, honesty and respect for privacy, to name a few.
When Jennifer raised this dilemma in class, unlike Quindlen (and most working reporters I know), she didn’t see the two sides as irreconcilable. “Just because you’re a journalist, that doesn’t completely define you,” she said. “I think a lot of journalists are under the impression that it does. You have to foremost be a human being and then think like a journalist. I think the answers [to many of our ethical dilemmas] would be clear then.” Many of the other students agreed with Jennifer, and I found myself nodding as she spoke. Recognizing this linkage could be a first step in regaining the public’s trust, I thought.
This spring many of my 19 students will begin work at the school’s daily newspaper or television station. For most, this will be their first taste of “real” journalism. On the one hand, I’m glad for the experience they will be getting; on the other hand, I’m saddened to think about all that will inevitably happen as they proceed along this pathway into jobs. Most likely they’ll start to embrace some of the journalism “norms” they were so willing to challenge in class.
I suspect this is something that happens in every profession as young people move into jobs where rules do matter and were developed with good and meaningful intent. But if they forget the arguments they made against those “rules,” the challenges they were once willing to make to them, then the profession will have lost another opportunity to keep itself fresh and honest and self-reflective.
I know in the future, unlike in the past, I’ll take opportunities to listen to interns and recent college graduates who other folks in the newsroom might dismiss as starry-eyed idealists. I hope that listening to their perspectives will help me remember why I chose to become a journalist in the first place.
Robin Jones will receive her master’s degree from the University of Missouri in May. Before returning to school in 1997, she worked for two years as a news and sports reporter for The Half Moon Bay Review, a weekly newspaper in a small town just south of San Francisco.
opinions about what we know, and this is the point at which journalists are taught to suppress this desire. Just as it is our job to share our findings, it is also our job to remain neutral in our telling.