The Journalist and The Activist

I’m stil trying to figure out what this blog will look like if I am still not going to express political opinions but also don’t have the veil of class assignments to hide behind.

But, I like blogging. So, I’m going to try this.

This semester, I am taking “Solving Problems with Digital Technology.” We are working with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative  to come up with innovative uses of technology in the Dudley Street neighborhood.

The other day, a woman came to speak to us about going into communities that are not our own and trying to help. We spent a good portion of the time talking about how to interview community members so that we actually are hearing what they want, what their concerns are, and what they think will be helpful, rather than pushing our own agendas on them.

I sat in class nodding and getting excited. “Hey,” I thought, “this is someplace where I can put my journalism skills to work.” A lot of what I heard were things I learned at Spectatordress appropriately for the story you are reporting  and the community you are going into (i.e. going to Manhatanville? Best not wear your Columbia sweatshirt and hat). Take notes without being obtrusive. Ask open ended questions.

So, there I am nodding  along, when the speaker starts talking about telling the person in advance  exactly what you are going to ask him, and about possibly (albeit rarely) compensating community members for their time. The journalists in the room stopped writing. And then, the speaker mentions cameras, asking permission to take photos (which is usually nice manners in journalism too, and necessary if you’re not on public property), and then–this was the kicker–she talked about handing over the camera to the person you photographed, showing him how to use the camera, and then letting him delete all the photos or recordings he doesn’t like.

That’s when it struck me. Journalism is kind of about the “gotcha” questions. It’s not that we are out to get the people we are interviewing; it’s just that we understand that news comes in the candid comments and images. Too much preparation and  too much ceding control of the interview and the material from the interview to the interviewee doesn’t produce the candid news we might need.

I do think that the complaints about the big bag media trying to trip up presidential candidates is ridiculous and petty; the political journalists are just trying to get information out of people whose job it is to be evasive. And, I know that activism shouldn’t be intertwined with journalism. There is value in telling an unadulterated story, even if it’s about someone a lot less powerful than a politician. Letting the person you are interviewing edit out what they don’t want from a story makes boring news, and it also makes less effective news. Readers don’t read or respond to boring, cleaned up stories. So, I understand the role that journalism ethics play in good reporting.

But, sometimes, it’s good to be reminded that the ethics of journalism are not the norm for other interactions. And that what works with a press pass isn’t always the smartest way to effect change.

I am working this semester as a research assistant for a long-time journalist, David Greenway. As I was walking out of his office after the interview, he asked me, “what do you want to do after graduation?”

“I’m trying different things,” I said, “but I’m pretty sure there’s nothing I am going to love more than journalism.”

“I like that we speak the same language,” he said. “Journalists understand each other.”

There’s that. He knew exactly what I meant. So, while I see the ways that other people might argue that journalism ethics aren’t ethical, I also see the value in them and in journalism and believe deeply in all that.

It’s something I’ll keep thinking about in the next year and a half (and hopefully after graduation too).


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