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.
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.