As journalists, our trade is stories.
Listen in on a gathering of journalists out to dinner – or more likely out for drinks – and you’re likely to hear sophisticated talk about the advances in data journalism or high-minded conversation about ethical considerations of publication, wedged in between the gallows humor that describes the state of the industry, and how we’ll end up broke and on the streets with only our humanities degrees to keep us warm.
But stay long enough and you’ll get to the real meat.
Here’s an observation for you: In any discussion between journalists given enough time, you’ll start to hear other people’s stories exchanged like Pokémon cards on the third grade open market.
Do you have the one with the lady with quite obvious mental health issues who regularly barnstorms city council meetings? How about the one about the professor publicly ridiculed for his race at a professional event? The one about the recovering Catholic with an autistic son and a gay best friend?
We’re not doctors or lawyers and we don’t have the same sort of rules governing interactions with our sources. The relationship between a subject and a reporter is somewhat more tenuous under the Obama administration, and without thesame privileges. But in any case, how could we not gleefully blab? It’s only a natural qualification of our jobs.
I don’t know when I first realized the profession that I fully intend to pursue in post-collegiate life is inherently immoral.
It might have been when I first talked to a woman who opened up about discrimination she experienced throughout her career. I turned around and made it a lede.
Or it could have been when I had a conversation with a homeless guy from Alaska, snatched a few quotes from him and left him in line at the shelter.
Or maybe it was when I first read Janet Malcolm’s indispensable work on journalism ethics, “The Journalist and the Murderer.” In the first paragraph of the book, she lays it out quite bare and beautifully. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” she writes.
I was talking to a fellow young aspiring journalist a few weeks ago and asked her why she got into the profession. She answered that she “wanted to tell the stories of people who couldn’t do it themselves.”
It’s a sentiment I might have spouted off a few years ago if you asked me the same question, but I’ve discarded it for the incredibly patronizing reasoning. I believe I’ve come to terms with the fact that I love journalism for the baser reasons of my personality, along with my better angels.
The gossiper that digs up mud on celebrities on TMZ? There but for the grace of God (or Harvey Levin) go I.
The big ego who needs to know things before other people and make sure everyone else knows it. Well there’s a reason why Twitter is mainly popular with celebrities and journalists.
Even the quiet, but relentless ambition. Which I would contend makes me a hungry reporter, but others have chalked up as just being nosy.
The thing is I think I’ve done good work even with this realization, or maybe in small part because of it. I’ve looked into the tamping down of free speech on college campuses, the plight of street-food vendors on Los Angeles sidewalks and even the occasional missing tortoise.
So much for my short-lived efforts to steer clear of shameless self-promotion.
All this is not to say that journalism is a bad field and I hope no one thinks I’m discouraging anyone to get into it – far from it. Being all those things doesn’t preclude you from being honest, brave and, most importantly, compassionate. While the practice of journalism may sometimes be distasteful, its fruits can be quite nourishing.
We need the gossipers, the ambitious and the talented with enormous egos. These are the ones who write brilliantly about the state of healthcare in America using the example of the veteran who can’t get his medication, the ones who risk their lives trying to get the real story out from war zones and the ones who help lead the charge in taking down a corrupt team owner caught with his pants down.
I’m just letting you in on a secret: Journalism – even (or especially) if performed with good intentions – is still just journalism.
But all of this comes from one. So take that with a grain of salt, or better yet, a shot of whiskey.