Journalism? It's a Tribal Thing

Image by Okinawa Soba via Flickr

This is the first in an ongoing series, every Thursday for the next six weeks, maybe more, of essays and interviews about news journalism, and why and how some of us do it. I’ll also offer original interviews with J-veterans whose work I admire, writers and photojournalists. If it’s Thursday – it’s J-Day…

Make no mistake. We’re a tribe. Whatever the ritual scars or initiation rites, becoming a respected, recognized news journalist — regardless of your medium or tools of transmission — can be as difficult and arcane as hunting and killing a wild boar or surviving many long hours alone in a dark, forbidding place. It does not happen, nor should it happen, overnight. If it does, beware. It is quite probably unearned. And the tribe knows it.

The tribe, regardless of age, race, gender, religion or nationality, has time-honored rituals, the shared and inevitable scars we’ve acquired and sometimes discuss over a beer in Berlin or at a conference in Boston or at a presser in Brooklyn or Doha. The breathtaking self-assurance of some, that so often spills over into arrogance, hides the truth we all really know. Every one of us will err, whether it shows up in the paper’s corrections box or remains a private and unresolved matter of conscience. Within this industry, at almost any level of the game, there’s daily doubt and fear, confusion and pain — and, sometimes, great, shared joy when we’ve done it well.

This includes:

Missing a deadline, getting someone’s name wrong (or several), getting the name of the company you’re covering wrong, losing your press credential, “forgetting” to turn in your official credential(s) after you’re canned or quit because you can’t bear to lose it, making (up) a new one, missing the bus or train or plane that will get you to the place you need(ed) to be to cover the story, not having enough money to get the next one.  Standing in 100 degree heat and humidity, or a driving rain or a hurricane, to get to the right details or source. Losing your pen, your notebook, your tape recorder and/or tapes, losing your camera or laptop. Spilling coffee all over your notebook so you can’t read your notes. Getting caught in rain or snow so you can’t write in your notebook because the paper’s wet and you don’t have a tape recorder. Getting back from an interview with not enough notes and you can’t make anything up and you can’t bear calling people back and re-interviewing them because they’ll realize how incompetent you’ve just been.

Misunderstanding a foreign-language word or phrase, translating it, and mis-quoting. Having 10 minutes to file. Filing for all five editions. Filing from the newsroom because your boss is too cheap to get you there while every single competitor is on-site for the story and about to kick your ass. Writing a review in 20 minutes and dictating it over the phone because you have no time to actually write it down. Doing a stakeout, being scared to pee for hours — and being scared to drink anything because then you”ll really have to pee — and possibly missing the exact moment you’ve been waiting 15 hours for.

Climbing the stairs in a filthy, stinking apartment building to talk to people who scare you.  Getting lost in the South Bronx or Beirut or Istanbul or Brixton and it’s getting dark and you’re almost out of gas and alone and your cellphone is dead and, in some of these places, there are people around you wearing very large guns. Trying to find a doctor while pointing to the right phrases in the dictionary between spasms. Interviewing skinny, languid women whose idea of deprivation means having three nannies and five homes. Being lied to because you’re a woman and they assume you’re stupid. Being lied to because you’re young, or look young, and they assume you know nothing. Being lied to by anyone who knows you’re their megaphone, or maybe just their bitch.

Interviewing someone — maybe a rapist or murderer — who makes your skin crawl, still capturing the story dispassionately as you are being paid to do.  Interviewing someone weeping hard as they re-tell their trauma, trying to capture the story calmly and dispassionately, as you are being paid to do. Trying to parse the difference, then and later — sometimes haunted for decades by what you did or did not do in that moment — between dispassion and compassion. Knowing that telling stories without context and history, and often compassion, leaves your audience with a dull pile ‘o facts. Knowing there’s a thin line, frequently crossed, between informing and pandering. Wondering when reporting slithers into voyeurism and what do to when your boss pushes you past your comfort zone.

Watching your scoop rot in the system as one after another of your competitors gets the story weeks or months after you did but your editor(s) or producer(s) just won’t run it, being screamed at by an editor who is a dick, being screamed at by an editor who has a very good reason for screaming at you. Being threatened with a lawsuit. Surviving a lawsuit. Pulling your punches because you — or your publisher — are too scared of a lawsuit or, more likely, losing ad dollars. Wanting to walk out the door in protest, except that you have a mortgage/student loans/no job waiting. Building your fuck-you fund, the one that will let you walk out the door next time. There will be a next time.

Asking a colleague for a help while they turn away with a sneer, helping a smart, talented kid who didn’t get an Ivy degree, helping anyone with passion and smarts to do it right, listening to one more lame-ass intern whine about their talent. Watching that kid get the job the other kid should have gotten. Watching someone with a six-figure salary produce 3 or 5 stories a year when no one you know and respect can get their resume read.

Watching someone in authority stride down the hallway toward you, shouting at you — yeah, you — and having to figure out how you’re going to salvage your dignity, your story and your job. Shouting back, when necessary. Wearing flat shoes on assignment so you can climb and run fast. Being manhandled by security. Trying to take notes in the dark in a moving vehicle. In another language. Wondering if your translator is being truthful.

Reading the wires late at night and finding a weird little story that no one else seems to have noticed and growing it into a national story that no one else seems to have noticed and getting it first, and right. Having your sorry, terrified, grateful ass saved by a soldier. Interviewing the preternaturally calm and generous parent of a dead young soldier. Finally understanding why that job is so much harder than you can ever suitably explain.

Being really scared to walk into a building or down a cold, wet, dark street and into a situation where you’ll surely get shouted at, possibly get shoved or grabbed or, worst of all, endanger your life in — and maybe having a photographer or cameraman with you who says, and means, “I’ll come get you.”  Giving a colleague a tip who then wins the prize/gets the book deal/award/fellowship and you don’t. Knowing your story got someone in trouble/demoted/fired/messed with their marriage/family, asking someone questions so deeply personal and painful they start to shake, listening to someone tell you they were raped or tortured or a victim of incest or corruption or infidelity — feeling as surely as the air in your lungs that this is the first time they have told anyone, that, somehow, they feel safe enough with you to tell you this about themselves. Like unveiling this before a minister or rabbi or a therapist, there can be catharsis in this for them. Sitting there, holding this fragile, terrible story in your hands, like some thin-shelled egg, knowing you must not dishonor it. You must not be careless with the gift of trust that someone you do not know has now placed in you. They assume you have a moral compass.

You must honor this belief. You must behave accordingly.

Don’t betray them. Don’t betray yourself. Don’t betray us.

29 thoughts on “Journalism? It's a Tribal Thing

  1. I’m 23, and so much of this already resonates. That said, I am increasingly wondering whether some of it ever will – journalism is transforming so quickly that I’m not sure it will resemble some of what you describe within even a few years. And I don’t know that that’s a good thing…

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Katie, my fear is that there are so few places for those of us who take this stuff seriously to really talk frankly to one another and figure it out. Media critics are one piece of this, but only one small piece.

    Glad this made sense to you!

  3. andygeiger

    Very moving Caitlin. You’ve painted a very encompassing picture of what i’ve always imagined it’s like (and more) for someone with your profession. And all of those struggles, and life experiences and diversity of human touches… Can only imagine the kind of human being it takes to do that. But as a consumer of news media for 30 odd years now, why do i then indeed feel betrayed by ‘the tribe’? It seems like these days, the average news consumer has to have a certain level of wherewithall just to know where to find news that isn’t the pandering you describe (and sometimes i even second guess those who have won over my superlative cynicism). I know it’s not your job to help people sort through the trash for truth, but i somehow can’t help but feel that if the Fourth Estate (whatever that really is) was truly engendered with the ideals you’ve described that we wouldn’t have things like Fox news.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    andy, thanks much for your thoughts. I agree, it’s tough indeed to find material you think valuable, true, thoughtful. It’s out there, and often not where you find it most easily.

    I’m a big fan of BBC World News, and listen to it every morning for a full hour, a true luxury I can enjoy as someone who works at home. I also speak French and Spanish so can find stories in those languages I can’t get otherwise. But even reading the Canadian and British press can add something slightly different, no doubt in my mind. My reading ranges fairly widely, including books, radio, TV, some on-line, magazines and newspapers. If 10 percent of what I get from each is good, that’s a lot of sifting! I value the Washington Post and read it weekly, through their weekly paper version. I love the weekend FT for its columnists, and some of the loveliest prose I’ve read in a newspaper.

    I have always loved being a journalist for allowing me to meet the insane array of people I have, from the Queen of England to murderers. I have at times been quite terrified while out on assignment, but you learn, sometimes the hard way, how to stay safe (r). At its very best, it forces you to stay open to new ideas and keep questioning your own decisions and values.

  5. And in spite of all these little terrors, it really is the life of kings. I think it’s so astute to see journalism as a tribal thing, Caitlin, because journalists are not like other kinds of doers. It’s a truth-telling tribe, cemented by a unique set of values, and as that tribe becomes increasingly small and exclusive, I worry most about those values, which are not valued quite so much, as far as I can see, in any other tribe: being accurate, being fair, going to the source, relying on facts, getting all sides of a story before considering it complete enough to judge. It’s those values we should protect, as a society, rather than the business model, which never was a perfect fit.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    Jeff, thanks. I know that any business needs to earn profit to pay us to write (well). But when you water down the free/low-paid content to puff pieces and re-written press releases, what are people actually paying for?

    I dare anyone, anywhere, to live safely and be governed well in a society where the only “free” press is a bunch of people writing only what amuses them and their advertisers. The very best investigative reporters, literally (Silkwood, etc) die for these values.

  7. One you missed: Leaping bravely out of your car to document a robbery in progress, writing and filing a vivid, extraordinary report, later being told by cop friend who saw you with note pad and camera: “You do know we were filming a training video, don’t you?” Story, and follow-up column about journalistic bravery, remained on police HQ bulletin board longer than I would have preferred.

  8. Michael Hastings

    Caitlin, great piece.

    My concern about blogging, and the Politico-ization of journalism is that ideas like compassion get lost somewhere. Compassion doesn’t always translate into instant web hits. And, it’s been my experience that compassion is really lacking in so much of the web discourse. (This is a huge generalization, but I think it’s accurate.)

    As Katie points out, perhaps the value system you describe is being lost. But, I’m confident that there will always be a place for compelling, indepth, narrative journalism that can be compassionate. That there will be publications willing to devote the space, and the resources, to telling lasting, powerful stories. Perhaps the tribe of those who write it will be smaller, but I think Youtube clips and and can only satisfy the truly curious up to a point.

  9. Caitlin Kelly

    Michael, thanks.

    I’m not a bleeding heart, but I think journalism without compassion (sometimes depending on your beat) is a real waste of time. This may very much be generational (?), but I’m fed up with and worn out by relentless irony and hip detachment and in-jokes. The writers/journos I envy for their skill — as you did today in your cool post — are passionate and engaged, those still willing to extend themselves far, far beyond what is comfy and known and what they feel certain will make the other cool kids giggle and tweet. It’s just not what gets me out of bed in the morning.

    As for not winning instant web hits if I, or you, take the risk of writing with compassion — at the risk of being rude to all of us here — that’s why I’m still writing for the dead-tree crowd; (I have a piece in today’s WSJ.) While there may be, and clearly is, some overlap in audience, the readers I most value share my values in this respect. If that so narrows the audience that I wither away on-line, so be it. I’ve been blogging since April 2009 — and writing professionally for decades. I know what I have. It just may not appeal to online readers.

    Fran, what a story! Love it.

    1. Michael Hastings

      Caitlin–yes, compassion can’t be the only virtue–and good journalism usually has elements of mischief and boat rocking and indignation as well(and throw in a tad of the cut throat and viciousness every once in awhile.) I suppose what I’m getting at is that in the new media environment, there just isn’t much space, the room, to show compassion in a meaninful way.

      I think your point is not entirely generational. The never ending stream of irony that infects so much of the what elite kids consume in their media diets on a regular basis is, in my view, pretty destructive. It creates a kind of apathy, borders on the nihilistic. It makes everything seem trivial. It allows the status quo to remain the status quo, gets us off the hook from caring, from showing real emotion–it makes us suspicious of real emotion, in fact.

      Not that there isn’t room for plenty of irony, or that irony isn’t a valuable prism to interpret the world, maybe it just needs to be in moderation… Don’t know where I’m going with this, so I’ll say goodnight.

  10. You’re “worn out by relentless irony,” and yet you listen to the BBC radio a.m. broadcast? I listen to it, too, and sometimes I have to turn it off because I can’t stand one more minute of a reporter floating on an air of toffy-accented condescension when dealing with a subject whom he or she holds in question or, audibly, in contempt.

  11. Caitlin Kelly

    Scott, interesting point. Like all the media I consume, it offers great bits and lousy bits. In general, I find it no more or less insufferable in tone than NPR or other U.S. networks on occasion. When I dislike BBC, it’s more because they’re droning on for 15 minutes about something really obscure. I do enjoy their sense of humor, which, as a Canadian, is somewhat more familiar to me.

    But the BBC, from my experience of it over a few years now, is often still months ahead on major stories of the elite American press.

    1. The BBC does take the prize for international coverage. That’s why I listen. They go after small and large despots regularly, much to their credit. Their weekly “We Don’t Understand Rural Americans” installment amuses me, also. But there comes a point in every ten interviews or so when the reporter, who should otherwise leave any bias unrevealed, turns up the “I don’t believe you and I don’t like you” tone, and my own journalistic tactics reject it.

  12. Caitlin Kelly

    Scott, the BBC does the same thing American reporters overseas so often do — “ooo, what a weird thing XXXXXn’s do”. Good foreign reporting, as we both know, isn’t a quick hit but takes time to understand the larger context. That costs money.

    It also takes a willingness to move beyond surface reads and personal bias. If the reporter isn’t doing it, their producer or editor needs to kick their butt. If their bosses fail to demand it, time to find another media outlet.
    They’ve all got weaknesses.

    I also sometimes wonder how often the imperial mindset kicks in.

    The European press is also less traditionally objective. When you read The Guardian, you’re not getting the right’s view of anything, for example.

  13. Viv Bernstein


    You really captured us — the best of us, anyway. Thank you for that.

    I can’t help but feel that ethic slipping away, though. Veteran reporters are dismissed to save money and young reporters don’t have enough role models to show them the way. The internet makes the world a speaker’s corner. Everybody has a voice, but there is no guidance and few who aspire to maintaining any standard.

    I tend to be cynical about the future of journalism. I hope I’m wrong.

  14. Caitlin Kelly

    Viv, thanks for your comment. This is something that really concerns me, and I’ll address next week — the paucity of role models for the next generation of journalists, whatever their medium.

    I learned, as likely you did, from the questions and challenges (as I still do, with my work for the WSJ and NYT) of tough, demanding editors and by watching and learning from those colleagues who were ferocious in their dedication and skill. My greatest sense of longing for a newsroom is less the paycheck, which I do miss, than a deeply shared culture, knowing there are always a few people working ten feet away from me who know how to do almost anything better than I can, that I can access their knowledge and up my game through exposure to their experience. You can’t just guess at how to improve.

    That also assumes (naively?) that writers still, always, want to improve.

    How, in this online world, do you/we create any sense of shared value(s) and pass those along? It’s that discontinuity that worries me because you can’t just hit the “publish” key and assume your stuff is great because of that. Because it so often isn’t.

    I wonder if it’s only the old-school journo’s like me (and maybe you in this respect) who actually look at that “publish” button and think…yeah,right. It’s not that easy, and when it is…is it any damn good?

  15. Marcelo Ballve

    I liked this post, it’s about a way of life in a certain profession, and as several comments already pointed out, there is a certain sepia-tinted feel to the descriptions. We feel that it’s a way of life, a culture, that’s slipping away. Why? I think much, but not all, of what defined this culture was the pursuit of scoops. Back then, information really did provide media properties a competitive edge. It was a world of generalists pursuing the day’s or week’s stories, topics, obsessions etc. trying to get a better, fresher story on deadline than their colleagues. Now (as this thought-provoking article states,, maybe it’s more about specialized knowledge. Content is commoditized, so is information, knowledge is still hard to come by. In the future, journalists will spend less time hooked on the adrenaline of the story chase, and more time hooked into a particular expertise, developing the base of knowledge that will make their information valuable. It’s not just beat journalism, it’s journalists knowing as much or more about a topic than the people they interview, it’s about lifelong devotion to a subject. It’s about publications creating a prism that builds knowledge as it filters the world through it. The Internet makes it possible for just a few publishers to come up with raw “news” i.e. information (an AP-type role) and leave the rest of us to pursue knowledge.

  16. Very nice piece. I have not been in all those situations, but quite a few, and some of them gave me the shudders. My worst, in recent memory, was a woman telling me about her suicide attempts, and the gradual realization that she was considering more, and I was the first person she was telling, so now I was responsible. I got so nervous about what to do, I faked a full bladder to get to the bathroom to collect my thoughts. I planned to call a shrink from the stall for advice, but found enough clarity in there to work it out temporarily.

    But I’m with you and Jeff on the flipside, too. I get to meet amazing people. Most of them people have never heard of, but they have done extraordinary things, and have keen insights. They really enrich my life. I’d never get to meet a fraction of them in any other profession.

  17. I like the tribal concept, too. Cultural anthropologists have this concept of liminal people (I hope that’s the word–True/Slant’s spellcheck claims it doesn’t exist), who are outsiders, betwixt and between, who are not quite seen as part of the main tribe, so they allowed to break all sorts of taboos and go/see/do/hear things ordinary members are excluded from.

    (I wish I could remember the examples better: priests, shamans, diplomats, any kind of performers (today, stand up comics, especially), often gay people (definitely drag queens–think about all the outrageous behavior they get away with), foreigners, and often things you wouldn’t expect, like money-lenders. Eg, the Medieval German princes trusted Jewish moneylenders, because they were so ostracized that their wealth could not conceivably translate to political power. Outsiders/liminals are marginalized in some ways, but are granted unusual power in others.)

    We’re treated that way. Things tend to change when a reporter enters the room. Everyone knows we’re not one of them. (Though a good reporter is good at helping them forget it–which can bring on its own ethical dilemmas.)

    We’re treated as members of a wider, disparate, alien tribe, because we are. It’s good to find our tribe out there. It’s lonely without one.

    I don’t know where this fits in, but Laurie Anderson once said she thinks of her main job as spy. She travels the country, spying on people, on the culture. Then she has to figure out what’s going on and write/perform art about it, but the primary element is going out there to gather the intelligence.

    I loved that. When I heard her say that, I went, “Ohhhhhhhhhh. Me too.”

    And I love the idea of being part of her tribe.

  18. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks for your thoughts, Marcelo. I agree with some, and less so with others. Scoops were always, and still are, a relatively small, if important, part of what traditional journalism has been about. The best stories, I think, weren’t always first, (though often they were the first to look in depth) but thoughtful analysis, adding context and history, gotten through boots-on-the-ground (not bloody Google!) firsthand reporting. The wires frequently got it first and likely still will, with some Web journo’s nipping at their heels. We need a wide range of smart people looking at the same story as the best ones will see huge holes remaining in coverage where others think it’s all been said and done.

    My post was not pure nostalgia, nor was it meant to be. More of a cri de coeur. If I lament anything, and I do, it is the notion that those who purport to offer “journalism” share any values about what that actually means. With all due respect, the best journalists are those who’ve always made it their job to know as much or more about a subject as those they interview. That’s not new. A good/great journo is like a courtroom lawyer. You rarely ask a question whose answer is likely to utterly surprise you because you’ve done so much research/thinking/prep in advance.

    The problem with firing all the old farts who actually knew how to do this is is: 1) who’s there to teach the next generation? 2) where, if anywhere, are the old farts (aka those who actually have arguably perfected their skills over decades) going to take their skills and get paid a living wage to use them?

    Is “knowledge” really something we can all access without paying a penny for it?

    1. Marcelo Ballve

      This is interesting. I really disagree that traditional journalists, even the best ones, knew more about their subjects than their sources did (a health reporter knew more about cancer than an oncologist?; a courts reporter more about the law than a judge?). Some reporters may have been experts, like an MD covering health, but from my observations in old-school news rooms (AP, Newsday) that mostly wasn’t the case. What they did was collect, synthesize, analyze and package information in a way that was attractive and interesting to the average reader. They were great at it. But I think journalists and publications need to cope with the fact that maybe their services (the sort you enumerate) aren’t as valuable as they once were, unless they’re willing to go an extra step. That’s why general market newspapers are mostly doing badly, while more specialized publications are doing a little better, and in some cases much better.

      To water down my case a little: It may be not always be a case of a reporter needing to have a finance degree to cover Wall Street (although I would say that’s a good idea). It may be that the expertise and knowledge can come from their outlet being good at filtering the news so that it’s a valuable take on the world. For example, I think The Economist and their reporters enjoy their status as one of the only print outfits with a significantly growing readership because they’ve built a lens and an institutional expertise that infuse real value into their reporting and writing. The Huffington Post can be viewed similarly, as a publication expert at packaging memes (even if it’s just a headline) that make web-surfing progressive drool into their keyboards. Most big newspapers aren’t too adept at adding value or finding a unique personality, yet. For now, they stick to the old mentality: get it first, get it right, and get it better. It’s nice to read the beautiful takeouts some of them occasionally produce, but frankly, they’re often dispensable in the same way a luxury item is, it’s nice to savor them for an hour or two every morning, but who can afford that? So maybe the traditional way is just not enough anymore, or maybe only one property/brand can emerge as the alpha old-school newspaper (which is kind of the case already). Many ‘old farts’ are trying to fuse the old values with the new ones of a marketplace that isn’t beholden to one or two local newspapers. I think people will pay for journalism, once they consider it unique, irreplaceable, and indispensable. None of this is mutually exclusive with the old values, it’s just kind of a higher gear. The tribe needs to step it up. I know a lot of people have been fired, etc. But there’s still plenty of need for the ‘old farts’ to inject traditional knowledge into the DNA of the new institutions emerging to upgrade journalism to indispensability.

  19. Caitlin Kelly

    Dave, great insights. Thanks! We’re liminal, for sure. I first heard that word when I edited someone’s Phd thesis.

    Spies at least have an agency to return to, most of the time. Those of us cut free from news organizations now have to maintain our shoe-phones, composure and standards all on our own. Gulp.

  20. Caitlin Kelly

    Marcelo, you’re scaring me now. Journalism has to be “unique, irreplaceable and indispensable” to be of value? Think I’ll go toss my keyboard into the Hudson in despair.

    How do you think — is it possible? is it now happening? — the “old farts” can inject traditional knowledge into the DNA or these new institutions to upgrade their quality? The really cold hard truth is this: who’s paying them/us for it? I’m here at T/S lot, offering whatever value I have — but that’s in whatever time I can spare from the rest of my revenue-producing day. As all of us know, even the most popular of us, are not earning FT staff salary equivalents. HuffPo doesn’t pay its people, so I guess it’s fun and good exposure but, for now, my old fart mortgage company, like everyone’s, doesn’t accept “exposure” when I fill in the check each month.

    So, for now, I rely on old media and dead trees to subsidize this on-line work. I rely on equally old fart editors (even those in their 20s); it’s their values and decisions that offer me checks large enough to pay my bills, for now, as I think they still do for many of us.

    Few, I think (?) are those people doing exclusively on-line journalism and earning $60-80-100k+ a year from it as senior print journalists have. If they can, cool.

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