Why I WANT To Be A Journalist

20 10 2010

In class last week, a few more students were called forth to share their blogging accomplishments with us.

One of them, who demonstrated a lack of rapport when addressing their peers, spoke only briefly about an early post entitled “Why I Hate Journalism,” which I found to be rather confusing.

Then what are you doing here?  I said aloud.
(Meaning: Why are you taking up valuable space in a JRL class, WTF do you want to do in life, and Are there any examples of what does attract you to this field?)

To be honest, I was mildly horrified that someone enrolled in the same program as me could have such distaste for Kevin Carter or Jim Sheeler.  These are the guys we are supposed to WANT to be! These are the people who SET THE BAR for our industry! This is the kind of work we are SUPPOSED to be creating!

I refuse to believe there is anyone who sets out, fresh from graduation, with the desire to just sit at a desk and write about engagements, school board meetings, petty crimes, or the obituaries.  I think anyone in (or entering) journalism- print or broadcast- wants to one day be commended for their efforts- be it with a Pulitzer, a Livingston, a Peabody, or a Polk Award.

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Below I have addressed Carter and Sheeler, as well as a few other writers or series that make me want to do this kind of work.

Kevin Carter breaks my heart- but he still took one of the most striking pictures ever printed. And while his name does infer a tragic story, he commands attention and respect even in death.  In a 1994 article, TIME magazine called his image of the vulture and starving Sudanese orphan, “a picture that made the world weep.” 

Carter’s photograph is definitive, both in its presentation and its ramifications, of the Sudan crisis in the mid-90s.  “How could you just stand there?” and “Why didn’t you do something?” are questions that can be asked of anyone– Carter was present, and he eventually shooed away the bird… but what did you do? What did you contribute to relief efforts?   I think in this industry, and in society as a whole, people are too quick to think they have a better solution.  We need to understand our way, individually and as a nation, may not be the best course- and that what we feel is not what the next guy is going to find appropriate behavior.   (For the record, I would have done what Carter did. Journalists are not to be part of their stories, we are merely vehicles from which stories are told.)

Jim Sheeler made me cry- all three times I read “The Final Salute,” actually.  I feel that Sheeler’s continued presence  in the academic side of Journalism and in the national lecture circuit, speaks to the importance of his piece- and perhaps that is because the combat mission Sheeler’s story centers on is ongoing.  Sheeler has an amazing skill, he paints vivid, heartbreaking scenes with careful words and powerful quotes.  He was definitely lucky to have been able to spend time with Major Beck and Katherine Cathey, because they provided the depth and the “color” a strong narrative or enterprise piece demands.

It has been suggested by individuals I discussed this article with, that perhaps I feel so deeply about “The Final Salute” because of my political affiliation… to that I say no, my association as an American is what fuels my reaction.  I sincerely believe that no matter who you want in office, your first responsiblity is to support the people that support you- and that is our armed forces.  It cannot be ignored that there are men and women scattered across the country and the globe right now, looking out for my interests and my freedoms, which allow me to write this.

Gene Weingarten is another “master” in our field- having won two Pulitzers to date.  I prefer the latter of his award-winning articles, “Fatal Distraction,” as it deals with an (unfortunately) more common, fathomable concept than his 2008 “Pearls Before Breakfast.”   I found “Pearls” to be an exceptionally planned and executed stunt, but Weingarten’s recap of the morning was peppered with elitism- a classmate of mine once commenting that she had to look up 27 words in the piece!  I think there is a quality of “the everyman” in “Fatal-”  both in the writing and the story itself.

“Fatal Distraction” opened my eyes to the fact that these deaths are sort of an epidemic in the making.  It makes me fear ever being a parent!  Forgetting your wallet or locking your keys in your car are embarassing, but I absolutely could not live with myself if I were responsible for the death of a child in this (or any) manner.  I really admire the parents who opened up to Weingarten, I’m sure sharing their mistake with the world was almost as hard as learning they had made it in the first place.

It makes me cringe any time a story about a child is on the news, especially one where they are missing or dead.
(CURRENTLY FOLLOWING THE STORY OF NC GIRL ZAHRA BAKER
I just feel so badly that everyone doesn’t grow up in a nice house, in a nice neighborhood, in a nice town like I did.  There is actually an aspect of guilt now associated with my “normal” life…  I can’t explain it beyond that.  I jot down the names scrolling across Nancy Grace, and from time to time Google them to see the status of the case when daily updates fade away.

Renee C. Byer has a gift.  Criticized for being exploitive, she and writer Cynthia Hubert’s chroniced the lives of 11-year-old Derek Madsen and his mom Cyndie French as they fought a serious form of childhood cancer- Neuroblastoma.  “A Mother’s Journey” earned both Byer and Hubert a Pulitzer- for Feature Photography and Writing, respectively.

“A Mother’s Journey” hits me a little harder because my younger brother had a brain tumor (10 years clean! Woo hoo!) when he was two, and this series is a exactly the life that so many of us in the “cancer community” live, and fear. I in no way agree with critics that Byer and Hubert invaded Madsen or French’s space or privacy.  Many of the individuals I know who have been forced to face childhood cancer are very open about their struggles, their successes, and their desire to spread the word- so a cure can one day be found.  All involved with this story, it’s publication, and promotion demonstrated a fearlessness that this fight needs on it’s side.

Rocky Mountain News Staff Photographers left me breathless with their coverage of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting.  Like the NY Times staff during/after September 11, the Rocky Mtn. crew were in a unique position to get these amazing images in the aftermath of such a bloody disaster. From students hiding behind cars, to classmates comfortlessly clutching eachother, to students triumphantly graduating, the “Columbine: Images from a Tragedy” series had me desperate to see the next frame.

This tragedy occurred when I was in the fourth grade and, aside from a few vague memories of OJ driving down the highway, this was the first “breaking news” or “current event” that I can distinctly remember.  It still grabs my attention every April.  It pops up as topics in literature or music that cross my path.  It is what every shooting on an academic campus has been compared to since April 20, 1999.

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For me, the kind of work that maybe in the middle of looking at it you wonder “Should I be seeing this? Should I be reading this?”  is the best kind.  If a piece of journalism, written or photographed, makes you uncomfortable, and yet grateful for having learned of it, the creator has done their job right.

I feel that all of the pieces I listed above are stories that have to be told; there is a need for this information to be shared.

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