“The National Society of Professional Journalists organizes practical journalism ethics into three main principles: report truthfully, act respectfully, and minimize harm.” -Helen Thomas, Watchdogs of Democracy?
I just finished Helen Thomas’ book Watchdogs of Democracy?. It’s been on my bookshelf for years and years. It was a fantastic book part about the evolution of American journalism in the 20th century and part a rant on bad journalism that lead up to and during the Iraq war. Now, I could do without the rants (even though I 100% agree) but there was some really inspiring content that reminded me why I fell in love with journalism in the first place.
Journalism was more than a hobby or direction, it was a full blown romance for me for a good seven or eight years. Being a big reader as a child, I had enjoyed writing and wanted to be a writer since I knew how. I tried my hand at fiction and poetry when I was young. For the record, poetry I could almost swing but fiction never has been in my range of abilities (no matter if I was 6-years-old or 26). When I was a sophomore in high school, I found an advertisement in the Sacramento Bee asking for teen writers for what was then called the Sidetracks page (for an by teens). It sparked my interest. I contacted Allen Pierleoni, then editor of the Sidetracks page, now reporter on food, books and travel, and he gave an assignment: cd reviews. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t put together a decent review. I never did turn in the article.
Then Mary Jo Kwett died. She was a sophomore at my high school who passed away from meningitis. It rocked my world. I barely even knew her, but in school of less than 400 girls total it was a blow to everyone. There was fear about the disease, new feelings of grief and trying to figure out how to respond while I watched people grieve.
So I wrote. It just came out. It was first article ever and it was published in the Sidetracks page.. After that I was hooked. It was the outlet I needed to deal with emotions and life, but it also meant more than that to me.
There was a sense of dignity to journalism. You may laugh because, especially today, we equate journalism with commentators and politics. Helen Thomas covers this downward spiral and lack of trust in her book. One great way she put it was, “Television has transformed journalists into personalities, who become more important than their stories. There is less and less ability to tell the story objectively, and the viewer is the looser.”
The journalism I believed in was summed up perfectly in the Scripps Howard handbook for journalists (think AP Styleguide today). Originally published in 1948 it said this:
“We have no politics, that is, in the sense of the word commonly used. We are not Republican, not Democrat, not Greenback, not Prohibitionist. We simply intend to support good men and condemn the bad ones, no matter what party they belong to. We shall tell no lies about persons or policies for love or money.”
I found that journalism gave me two goals that I couldn’t live revolve my life around: the ability to be apart of history, and to help people by writing the truth. By the time I graduated high school I had written 15 articles for the Sidetracks page, and was very focused on my journalism career.
I went onto Chico State University where came to the realization that I just didn’t have a tough enough skin to be a proper news journalist I was striving for. I couldn’t handle chop-heavy editors, (as you can tell by this blog) spelling and grammar were not my strong suits, I was then too impatient to pay attention to details, and really struggled to go out of my comfort zone for a story. I wouldn’t say I was a disaster of a journalist, but I had the heart but the skills.
At the same time that I was realizing that I wasn’t fit for the path I was on, I happened to be taking a public relations class. One day they brought in a speaker to discuss non-profit PR. It combined my love for helping people, writing, but also added the bonus that I could get involved with actively helping people, versus standing on the sidelines to report. It clicked. And the rest is history.
There were so many stories and people mentioned in Thomas’ book that got me all fired up, but I want to leave you with the one that is one of my favorites…Edward R. Murrow. Journalism is supposed to be giving a voice to the people, and to be the ultimate checks and balances to our government. One of the most brilliant, courageous, and public examples of excellent journalism is when broadcaster Edward R. Murrow decided to stand up to Senator McCarthy during the era of blacklists, communist hysteria, and “un-American” labels. Many in news and media would not report anything negative about Sen. McCarthy’s actions for fear of being blacklisted and even sent to jail, they were giving him complete power over the press. In his broadcast on March 9, 1954, Murrow said this:
“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deeper in our history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who fear to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the truth.”