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. Continue reading “Journalism? It's a Tribal Thing”