On committing journalism on purpose

In the last week I have been duly inspired by two standout women journalists. As I speak before a lecture hall to freshmen journalism students at Northwestern University’s Medill School every week, I am brought back to the intention that inspired many of us to pursue journalism reverently and humbly. It starts with the intention to change a system, portray a life, change a mind, foster a smile or an action. I want to remind the young men– and mostly women– that journalism is a noble profession.

The shame of plagiarists, back-talking CNN anchors and sloppy pundits aside, there are many thousands who take this profession seriously and view our jobs more as a calling than a call to a paycheck. It is the storytelling that matters to us.

Connie Schultz , a columnist at the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, reminded me why I became a journalist in 1979 in her essay published on Poynter last week.     

It is an honor to tell the stories of regular people leading heroic lives of struggle and hard work. While it is sometimes wearying to chip away at the daily injustices of American life, it is ultimately rewarding work, if for no other reason than it fuels the person I want to be when I wake up in the morning. I don’t want to give up the fight. I want to be the woman who still jumps out of bed ready to take another swing at life.

    Another journalist I emulate is Laurie Hertzel, whose new book, “News To Me” is just out from University of Minnsota Press. In her book she writes about her own career as a small town reporter able to tell stories exceptionally well.  

For my last book, Everyman News, I interviewed Laurie, then working on narrative projects for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2004. Now the books editor, Laurie said, “When you attach news stories to human beings, then it becomes more real.”

It’s ethics week this quarter in my Reporting & Writing Class and I have a robust lecture planned with two days of vigorous reporting and writing assignments designed to spark debate and thoughtfulness on the practice of being an ethical journalist. I sometimes cringe that I only spend a week on ethics. Hopefully this is the beginning of a dialogue that lasts each student’s four-year career here.

But it’s an opportunity to affect young journalists and to point out examples of those who continue to tell stories well because the compulsion is to inspire change that will affect lives. And to do it as well as humanly possible. Strive for excellence. And if real change is not possible through the journalism committed, then real stories will at least give a reader or viewer pause.

Schultz said it best:

“This is why I got into journalism. This is why I stay.”   

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1 Comment

Filed under Features, Media, News, Newspapers

One response to “On committing journalism on purpose

  1. lhertzel

    I remember you, and our interview, very well. And I met Connie last year at the final Nieman Conference–she is, indeed, a wonderful journalist and storyteller and a great person to emulate. Your students are fortunate to have a professor who understands and believes that while the trappings of some journalism have grown tawdry, journalism itself remains a noble and vital pursuit.

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