When informing isn’t enough

This school year has been very long.

Of course, that sentence automatically sounds negative. And yeah, a lot of negative things happened to me this year.

But after thinking — cue in the image of a self-reflective member of the intelligentsia — about it, I can’t come out of this year with a negative perspective. Rather, I want to be intentional and active about being positive.

I’m not sure when it hit me, but I’ve been disenchanted with the traditional structure of journalism for a while, for about a year. I don’t know the trigger and I don’t know if it’ll even last, but I do know one thing I want that I’m not getting that I keep on repeating to myself but can’t verbalize to anyone else.

I don’t want to criticize anyone, because I think this program is great. I think it’s achieved many things and it’s developed many great journalists.

But I simply have not been satisfied with it, and I couldn’t pinpoint why.

I think I realized part of it today when I was actually talking to an adviser about something completely unrelated to journalism. I’m applying for a grant after school and this adviser was asking for me to clarify something in my personal statement.

I wrote about how I want to tell stories, how I can’t do anything but tell stories. (Oh god! Just like everyone else!) And he said that was fine. But he asked what the point was to it. He asked me what he expected people to do with the stories I told. 

He read a part of my statement where I describe the moment I wanted to go into journalism: it was when I saw one of photojournalist Robert Capa’s photos, and I was so intrigued by the photo that I wanted to know more. Of course, my adviser was right. I wanted to know more and I made myself learn more. I looked up Robert Capa and pored over his photos. I wanted to learn everything about him.

Maybe that had something to do with him and maybe it had something to do with me.

But my adviser told me that the only way I communicate what I want to do will be through telling what I want people to do after they read my story. He said that I should want people to “look for the sequel.” 

I had never thought of my stories this way before. The way I perceive writing journalistically does not focus on the receiving end of the story: the reader him or herself. But it makes total sense. We think about the writing of the article and the gathering of interviews and sources and information and we put it all together and make it beautiful and send it on its merry way.

But what if people don’t care?

A lot of work goes into journalism. A LOT of work. But sometimes the output doesn’t match the input, which is one of the huge blockades I’ve run into. 

We expect readers to automatically love long features and beautifully written prose. But sometimes they won’t. A lot of the time they won’t. 

Of course, that’s not to say that the way I’ve been taught how to do journalism ignores the reader. That’s not what I’m saying. But the way we expect readers to respond is flawed, I think. Or maybe the way I want people to respond to my stories is different from everyone else.

Wanting to do something after you read an article is more than just clicking through links and reading more stories, to me. 

But it’s not about “making” anyone like my stories. I don’t want someone to read a story I write and think, “Wow, she’s a great writer.” I don’t really care what anyone thinks of me as a writer, which is why I have such a fundamental problem with journalism awards and dinners and really anything self-congratulatory.

What I want from people who read my stories or watch my videos is not about me. It is about the story. It is about the people I am describing. I want to instill something within people to do something. But it’s different from Nicholas Kristof. I don’t want to be Nicholas Kristof.

I want my stories to be a vessel for people. Maybe it’s just them thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know that” about some kid in Prague or some average post-college guy in some average college town. I want to tell boring stories and exciting stories so that boring people and exciting people can somehow form some connection with each other. I want these boring people and exciting people to know that they don’t have to join the Peace Corps or buy a pair of TOMS shoes to appreciate humanity at a global level — I just want to tell them about each other and maybe look up some Wikipedia page about another culture or cry when they see another crying or laugh when another is laughing.

I want to work for StoryCorps. I want to work for Radio Free Europe. I want to make films like Life in a Day or Tree of Life or Stoker or Bending Steel (for real it’s a great documentary). I want to be involved in things like this because they are activists and humanists, but overall, they tell very simple stories about people — but these stories hold a deeper significance because they really are just about people. No more, no less. No pretention or upside-down pyramid style anything. And I think stories like that can almost be the most effective.

StoryCorps realizes that people cry when they hear about heartbreak, or death, or aspiration, or youth. Radio Free Europe is so much more than just another news aggregator — it takes an active role in the region it’s covering. Life in a Day was so great because it was about people, in a day, doing what they do. Because we all do, and we all have 24 hours in a day, and that’s something so basic but yet so special.

Because even if people don’t do anything after they experience these stories, they feel. Sometimes I don’t think people feel after taking part in the journalism cycle.

Yes, we should have daily coverage of news. But what does it do, at the end of the day? What is the purpose of a story if it does not take an active role in the mind of the reader? Why tell a story if no one wants to do or feel anything afterward?

I don’t want people to think of me as a writer. I don’t want to write a traditional feature. I don’t want to write things that people don’t care about. 

I just want to make people feel.

“Newsworthy”: to be or not to be

I’ve been suffering through an identity crisis of sorts for a while about journalism. I’ll be honest.

I will not go into detail about the reasons except for one. That reason is the constant battle I have with determining whether or not something is “newsworthy.” 

I think about things in very strange ways and I come up with grandiose, big ideas. I want to write about huge concepts, like humanity and love and life and depression and sorrow. On the other hand, it’s hard for me to come up with the ground-level immediate stories that I am so frequently encouraged to find. 

I realize that this is an issue. I realize that my conceptual brain and my constant mental refabrication of every idea Terrence Malick has probably already thought of. But I can’t stop thinking that way. I’ve tried to think more concisely and in more solid terms — but even when I think up more basic and tangible ideas, they don’t give me any satisfaction.

I’ve talked to people about interviewing and one of the common responses that I’ve seen interviewees have when they’re approached is, “Why would you talk to me? I’m so boring.” 

But do we really expect any other response? The media perpetuates the concept that only blood, drama and “uniqueness” (whatever that means now) can make a headline. Of course people think they’re boring. I hate having to describe to strangers why I’m talking to them not only because I see that people really do think they’re boring but also because I hate how “average” stories are considered to be less valuable than “relevant” or “immediate” or “current” or “timely” stories. Perhaps dubbing one story “timely” and another story “untimely” (or, in other words, not important enough) is an overestimation of the journalist’s responsibility anyway. Do we really think we are so all-knowing that we can determine that one person (or one event) is more important than another?

I don’t think so.

I even heard the other day people talking about people and their stories. One person said the same thing that I say: how everyone they’ve met is interesting and how they tell their sources that. But then the second person said, “Well, everyone has an interesting story. Some are just more interesting than others.”

That’s something fundamental about journalism that I just can’t get behind. And maybe that’s the source of one of the frustrations I’ve been having.

I will continue to explain to people that I have never met an uninteresting person (it’s true). Sometimes I go into interviews for some specific purpose but I’ll end up talking to them for three hours just because I’m interested in what they say and how they act and how they’re interacting with me and my questions. I test people with personal questions; I pull back to respect their boundaries. I laugh with them and tell them I understand how weird an interview is because it’s weird and at certain points I can’t be anything but transparent. Yes, I will drink beer with them. Yes, if they ask me to withhold something (for a verifiable and understandable reason), I’ll probably do it. 

I’m a person and the people I interview are people too. 

And if journalists are the ultimate purveyor of humanity, I think we need to escape the veil of newsworthiness and tell those stories that may not be “relevant.” Every interview I’ve had has showed me that everyone has some little interesting thing about them, and I want to be the person to talk about that interesting thing. 

People think journalists “use” them and they’re right to think so. Journalists do “use” people to their advantage. They have a “newsworthy” story and they call the right people and get quotes and write the “newsworthy” story afterward and turn it in and never look back. Nobody’s entirely happy in that situation.

I’ve brought up ideas for stories but they’ve been shot down because they’re not timely enough or newsworthy. But they’re newsworthy to me. And they should be newsworthy to everyone else, including people in a newsroom. 

What comes first to my mind when I try to defend myself and defend my broad and vague “mist

There’s a quote that is often used to describe the “man bites dog” concept in journalism: the concept that news will cover a man biting a dog because it’s unique but will never cover a dog biting a man because it’s average and run-of-the-mill. It’s a great concept because it’s true. I feel like journalism sometimes falls into its out self-dug pit when it either sensationalizes some oddball story, exaggerates another and ignores another.

Anyway, the quote is, “You never read about a plane that did not crash.”

I guess I want to write about that plane. I want to write about people who are “boring” and who aren’t “newsworthy” and who really are just…people.

Is that wrong?

The reporter and the reported

Today in class, we talked about the big elephant in the room of journalism: ethics.

It was a pretty interesting conversation, and it really did surprise me thinking about how often journalists run into ethical dilemmas.

I won’t describe the exact dilemma we were discussing, but basically, a reporter had to decide whether or not to err on the side of their source or their editor. The source didn’t want a story published for a week for a certain reason, but the editor wanted it published that night. It was a long conversation that followed suit – should she have pushed back against the editor? Should a reporter automatically trust a source?, etc – and I really thought about it afterward.

The main point I took out from this whole conversation was the idea of trust and how elusive trust can be within the reporter-source relationship. Sometimes the source doesn’t want you to publish something (or a whole article, for that matter), and this could be done out of good intentions or bad intentions. Sometimes the source wants you to do the complete opposite: publish, publish, publish!

But, in a class I took last semester, I remember perking up about a sentence my professor said: “You can never tell anyone’s intentions ever about anything.”

If you think about it, it’s true. You can’t tell anyone’s intentions. This veil that conceals everyone’s actions is particularly apparent when a reporter is talking to a source, and understandably so. The reporter is coming into the situation with a goal (an article) and the source is coming into the situation with a different goal (their voice, opinion, makeshift personal PR campaign, etc.). This is complicated when both reporter and source play the status game: the reporter is asserting his or her role as the tough but empathetic questioner, and the source is playing a marionette game with the things he or she decides to tell the reporter.

It can be incredibly exhausting. Thinking about it certainly doesn’t help, either!

I’m writing this post because I was actually doing something totally different from journalism – trying to find the former Gen. Petraeus’ Army counterinsurgency release – that lead me to an interesting website. This website provided the link to the old counterinsurgency release, and it was obvious that this person who owned the site was a severely distrusting, left-leaning, anti-government citizen.

Of course, using this website as a reliable source would hardly be a good idea. But there was one great point this website owner said as a disclaimer below the release’s .pdf link. He told the viewer to make sure to remember that while this document was easily accessible, this accessibility is questionable itself. He was basically saying that because this document was public, it was a subtle shot at publicity for the Army. He also said that he’d prefer to have the military do its bidding and finish its jobs privately, instead of pulling in the public with a cheap shot at PR in its public releases.

(Now, I’m not saying big huge companies and big players like the Army should keep documents private. I’m not. I’m just saying he made an interesting point.)

I mean, think about it. This guy makes a good point. Any large entity that knowingly releases a document, series of documents or even a mere press release has some intentions that aren’t going to be stated in said document. Even if said entity releases documents after pressure, you must admit that some conversations had to happen to make sure it was okay and that ultimately wouldn’t ruin everything. Of course, I’ve never pressured anyone for sensitive documents – so maybe I’m out of my element there.

But anyway.

Any other source could very much do the same thing – using his or her knowledge and documents as a bargaining chip. Perhaps making a poker reference is too cynical. But, in a way, the conversation between reporter and source is a game – a game within which both sides must play.

In the discussion today, it seemed that some people perceived this source to be malicious in his request to have the article not be published yet. Others thought it was a rightful use of privacy. I’m not sure which one is right. Maybe elements of both are.

Maybe he did want to control the media. Maybe he did just want to keep his private affairs under wraps.

His intentions are unknown. So are everyone else’s.

Reading intentions is impossible – literally – but hopefully there’s a way to counter the “game” we play with sources. Personally, I’m a little too trusting. But some of my counterparts can be too skeptical.

I’m not quite sure when is the right time to push the skeptical card, and when is the right time to trust your gut and your source.

I’m sure that’s a problem that professional journalists have too. Does it get easier? That’d be something I’d like to know.

For once, I don’t have a beautiful sum-up sentence for a post. It’s an issue that leaves me conflicted. Hopefully over time I will learn to deal with it with more elegance than edginess.

Back in the saddle

The first step is to admit that you have a problem.

Okay. I have a problem. I have been neglecting this blog. I feel awful.

Good.

Moving on.

I’m back at the Missourian for the enterprise beat for the Spring 2013 semester. It’s going to be a change from education, and I’m going to have to take a lot of initiative and keep my often spacey and conceptual ideas reined in. I’m going to need to make these ideas tangible and tactile and identifiable. I had a very successful first couple talks with my editor, and I’ve been doing some preliminary research for some topics I’d like to cover.

I came to enterprise because it was my other top choice when I was applying for beats for the first time last year, but also because I wanted a chance to branch out in my experience with the newspaper.

It’s a new year, and I’m already slacking on some resolutions. But the newspaper is different. I had a variety of experiences late last year that hit me pretty hard, and I think my work showed it. But I’m not one to wallow, and I’ve come back from last year with little more than a few mental bruises. But now is not the time for mental bruises. And now I just looked up ways to make bruises better, and the solutions vary from an ice pack to acetaminophen to parsley to pineapple to leeches (yes, leeches).

Alas, 2013 feels like it’s going to make itself into a nice amalgamation of parsley and leeches to turn my bruises into little tea lights. (I’m not making any sense. The tea lights come from a class exercise where I said the lights represented positivity and finding the motivational light within ourselves.)

I’m really good at metaphors, right?

Anyway. I truly am excited to be back. I wasn’t sure where I was at the end of spring semester, and honestly, I wasn’t sure where I was in December. But it feels good to be back working within the strangely comforting seafoam-teal-green walls of the Missourian. I was nervous coming back. But it subsided very quickly, and everyone, as always, has been supportive and accepting. I got that feeling from the very first time I walked into the paper. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe, but it’s certainly there. Maybe it’s comfort, maybe it’s nerves, maybe it’s just a feeling that is telling me that I am back in the right place. I’m back in the place that was always the right place for me to me. Now it’s my time, again, to take up the reins and get back onto the road and see what’s ahead for me for the next few months.

(I post this as I just realize how many horse references I’ve made in this post. Whoops…there’s that bad metaphor thing again.)

Onward!

Update: On the student paper resignations

(Note: I did work at The Maneater. But this is an unbiased — as actively and consciously unbiased as possible — post about the recent events there and across the country. I write this as a student journalist, because I think it’s too important not to write about and is a good way to open up discourse and transparency within our journalism here.)

I’m taking a break from my writing to post something about the recent developments for college newspapers.

There’s been a surge in student newspaper resignations across the country stemming from reasons including inaccurate information, misleading information and more recently, inappropriate humor. There was the resignation at The Daily Free Press because of the paper’s disregard over the impact of their April Fool’s edition that trivialized rape especially after several related events had occurred earlier in the year. There was the resignation of an editor at The Daily Iowan. A while ago, there was the resignation of the managing editor at Onward State for a faulty tweet. Now, the razing of the Maneater’s April Fool’s edition that had an inappropriate LGBTQ slur as the masthead as well as other offensive remarks throughout the issue has wreaked havoc within the newsroom.

What does this all mean?

There’s a lot behind it. Perhaps a lack of oversight at the papers, perhaps ignorance, perhaps a tendency to post information as soon as possible — without verification.

The thing with the Maneater debacle is that this apology letter shouldn’t have been written in the first place. What should have happened was a re-assessment of the impact of an April Fool’s Day issue of the newspaper. There should have been a better thought process by the few people involved in the error. I’ve spoken to many of my friends about this. There are plenty of ways to be humorous — even searing — without resorting to lowly derogatory comments. Just because they’re young and hip, doesn’t mean they had to go full-blown Adult Swim on the front cover of the newspaper.  We don’t have to degrade ourselves to meet some unwritten standard of humor. A newspaper is a newspaper. Although our definition of journalism is changing, our adherence to its values should not.

Call me a grandma, but I just simply can’t get behind the idea of an April Fool’s issue. What’s the point? I understand, it’s funny. But do something else. Make a comedy section. Heck, make an entirely separate comedic news source. But once you blur the lines between what is news and what is satire, especially when the newspaper itself is wrapped literally in this farce, how can you expect readers to differentiate between it themselves?

And let’s just focus on one word — “newspaper.” This was an ‘egregious’ error not only because was it just poorly thought out (or not thought out), but because it breaks the basic rules of what we as young journalists are learning and striving for, those rules that are instilled into us every week in Gannett and Lee Hills: fact-checking, context, proportionality, truth, awareness of our readers, devotion to our readers, fairness. If we digress from our own rules, then it will only become easier for the public to become skeptical about our role.

I’m not writing this post to attack The Maneater or its editorial board. I just think this is too important of an issue to not discuss. I also don’t want to wish ill upon the former Maneater editors. But I do believe that their actions are the best to take in a situation like this. Although, I don’t think that a complete withdrawal from journalism should be the immediate response.

Sidebar: I also disagree with the disciplinary action the university is reactively taking. It’s extreme, unnecessary and tiptoeing around very volatile territory for a student publication’s rights. These editors have been through hell and back, and it’s not over yet. But deliberately ruining them is not, in my opinion, the mature reaction at all.

We live and we learn, and this just happens to be one of these learning moments that happens to be relentlessly burning in the spotlight of criticism. But I do believe it will help the newspaper grow stronger and help everyone involved learn important lessons that really, truly may not have been learned had this not happened.

Some people have used these unfortunate events to say that journalism today is so easily compromised and held to a lower standard. Others have defended the papers and the editors, saying that they should be forgiven. I think that both of these claims have some truths to them. I also have to admit that, as my ethos and pathos tells me to, I have to sympathize for these editors. They’re going through a strife that a lot of us won’t understand. They do need forgiveness. Because, after all, they did make mistakes. But we all have done the same (although maybe not to the same scale).

“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.”
― Elbert Hubbard

But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable. They should. As a community, we need to hold them accountable for their actions. We also need to, as a community of journalists, hold ourselves accountable. Because what one man (or woman) does in our crowded profession will undeniably affect others. So while we must take responsibilities for our individual actions, we should also keep an eye out and an ear open as a cohesive unit so that we can continue to function. People see us as an entity, so we should do that as well.

I also do think it is concerning that this dire situation is the only thing that really motivated the paper to take direct action against itself. I can’t fail to mention that there have been other apologies this semester for debatably poorly executed and thought-out editorial sections. It’s just such a shame that this had to happen to initiate the change.

Student papers often lament about not being taken seriously by readers. But if they want to be taken seriously and be treated as professionals, they need to act like them. This must happen in the newspaper itself, but also within the newsroom.

But overall, I think this is a learning experience for everyone. It’s a chance for the newspaper to change. It’s a chance for the former editors to think about what happened, and what will happen now. It’s also a chance for us, as outsiders, to learn what happened, to become part of the conversation and — gasp — to forgive, at least eventually. The consequences will be bad. But we should not be so quick to bring out the pitchforks.

This is also a good chance to reflect on our society, and more specifically my generation and my generation of journalists, as a whole. We’ve become a very attack-prone, negative, “insta-everything” (a phrase I like so much I took it from the NYTimes; forgive me!) generation and it’s perpetuated by the internet and our often stubborn perceptions of people. We make fun of each other. We make fun of strangers. It’s become insensitive and unsympathetic, our humor. And often, it’s hard to separate this humor and our critiques from how we present ourselves. But as our Twitter and Facebook profiles become intertwined with our professional life and we combat with “being ourselves” and still being respectable professionals, we’ve gotten into the habit of feeling entitled and being selfish about what we’re really doing and what consequences — and public opinion — could result from our actions.

Yes, you can technically tweet about whatever you want. Sure, you can post that crude article from Cracked.com. But you can also refrain from doing that, too. I think the plague of “instant gratification” my generation finds itself coming back to over and over again can really just stem back to both an ignorance about consequence and a selfishness, which is both innate and learned. And let’s not forget that way too many people still say “gay” to mean “dumb.” It’s just…lazy.

Yes, April Fool’s editions are funny. So is that tweet that you want to send about a boring event you’re covering. So is that mean comment you really, really want to say (and don’t lie…you know we all think these things.) about your ex and his/her bad hair day.

But it’s this lack of restraint that is maybe a big reason why these events happen and also why people still are so quick to hound on journalism.

Sometimes we need to refrain from the betrayal that comes from our quick-moving minds and quick-typing fingers. We’ve become too greedy over becoming the most shocking and we’ve become too accepting of extremity and we’re losing regard for ourselves as a community and as a profession that’s always under scrutiny. We too, therefore, are at fault.

I’m not saying that we should resort to inaction. Rather, I’m saying that through our action, we should consider the difficult option of restraint. Sometimes it takes more action to restrain ourselves than from instinctively reacting. And that’s an action that the editors, and also my generation — as journalists and people in general — need to hone. Because otherwise, we’ll just keep shooting ourselves in the foot. Because otherwise, we risk losing the respect of our superiors and also the ability to respect one another.