News & Publishing

The Increasingly Dangerous Job of Journalism

I could write this morning about the anti-Press rhetorical climate, with the drumbeat percussed by the President of the United States every day.

I could write about the reporters I speak with weekly, who all share a common scourge of relentless online harassment and credible threats. I could write about their frustrations of not having recourse with social media platforms, let alone the police or criminal justice system.

I could write about how anonymous cowards celebrated the murders of four journalists and a sales assistant yesterday. (https://www.mediamatters.org/blog/2018/06/28/far-right-online-message-board-users-celebrate-annapolis-newsroom-shooting/220569)

Some of the serial abusers aren’t anonymous. Some have national or international megaphones.

I could write about the endless anecdotes journalists and editors share with me about being stalked.

I could write about how I’ve been harassed and stalked.

And maybe I’ll write about these things in Editor & Publisher one day. I don’t typically write in the first person there, but maybe one day I will.

But today … today … I will fight through angry tears to honor the five people from my tribe – publishing people, news people – with a reminder of who they were, who we all are.

I knew none of them personally, but I know their kind.

Journalism is not just a job. It’s a compulsion. It’s an addiction.

I wouldn’t know how to fact-check this, but clergy often talk about having “a calling.”

As near as I can tell, journalists feel that way about journalism.

I’ve often found a running theme with reporters in newspapers, in particular. Nearly all of them grew up having witnessed, passively observed or have been a party to some harm or injustice. These experiences didn’t “sit right” with them. At young ages, they could make the connection between harmful people or institutions or nations, and how they flourish under the cover of darkness. They instinctually want to protect others from them; they want to be the light switch.

In a direct and measurable way, reporters see themselves as in service to this nation – though by picking up a pen instead of a semi-automatic weapon.

They are subjected to a strict set of ethics, which are published for the public – by news organizations and governance associations. These ethics are continually challenged.

No journalist embarks on the job with delusions of grandeur. There are no riches to be had.

Especially for print journos, there is no promise of fame.

Mostly, the job looks like a slog through information, research, phone calls, source vetting, endless fucking phone calls. They endure meetings and argue with editors and try to keep up with the AP Style Guide changes.

They’re asked to multitask in a ways that represent new ground. They must report, interview, fact-check, layout, produce video, capture still photos, adjudicate sources, learn how to fly a drone, explore narrative and visual storytelling, devote time to professional development, and damn it, you’d better blast out 15 or more tweets a day or else.

They work odd hours and eat shit food, because “Time! I need more time!”

Their desks are the stuff of hoarders; their keyboards are caked with crumbs. Their eyes have gone bad at an early age because of all the screen time.

They are in perpetual motion. They rarely take time off. Vacations are seen as lofty goals. Working vacations are the norm.

They are never satisfied with what they write. They never see a story as being complete, nor finished.

They struggle to chase a truth that is eternally elusive, purposely obscured, hidden, difficult to digest, and ever changing. They beat themselves up – worse than any online commenter ever could – when they get a story wrong, when a source proves unreliable, when an inaccuracy goes to print under the byline that bears their name.

They fear that even the most innocent fuck-up in editorial judgment will not just cost them their job, their immediate livelihood, but their entire career. And that happens.

The weight of the job – every aspect of it – is heavy with profound responsibility and perpetual uncertainty.

Journalists know that they’re not islands, too. They are fully cognizant that they could not do their jobs without the entire support of the news organization, many of which have been gutted through austerity, corporate ownership, and the quest to enrich shareholders. Everyone left has a vital role in getting the newspaper to your doorstep or to your screen – journalists, editors, production people, graphic designers, IT and data analysts, ad teams, circulation and audience staffs, finance and accounting, prepress and pressroom folks, support staff.

And not one single minute of it is glamorous, nor elite, nor comfortable, nor well paid, nor secure, nor safe.

And yet, despite that, they find the work fulfilling, challenging, dynamic. They can’t imagine ever doing anything else. They live in fear that one day they will be forced to.

A Pulitzer is coveted and revered, but for the vast majority of journalists, it’s as plausible as a unicorn. It is a rare acknowledgement, an “Atta-boy, atta-girl, job well done.”

Seventy-one journalists died in 2017 alone for doing their jobs. They were gunned down at a child’s Christmas pageant, had their cars wired to explode, were kidnapped and subsequently murdered, they were thrown out of windows, stabbed, and killed by suicide bombers while embedded with the military.

But they do it because it must be done – not for themselves, but for the readers they serve, for the communities they inform, and for the nations that need their watchful eyes, perspective, and increasingly dangerous labors.

As the five people at The Capital Gazette were murdered in their offices yesterday, that’s all they were trying to do.

 

 

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