Let me tell you about my life as a journalist. It’s important that I tell you, even if it feels meaningful to no one but me. I have made a career out of helping to tell other people’s stories. In this space, in this letter, I make a habit of telling my own. What I am about to share with you is where those spaces intersect. It is not straightforward.
As you may or may not know, I work at the Columbia Journalism Review as a senior editor. This past week, our editor and publisher, Kyle Pope, wrote a letter to the new administration on behalf of American journalists. It was an appropriate thing to do, since CJR’s mission is to be a watchdog of the press and help serve as a guidepost for the industry. His letter went viral, nearly breaking our site several times in 24 hours and bringing in traffic our organization has never before seen, not even close. It was a testament to how many people outside the industry are paying attention to the word “press” these days.
In response to his letter, we’ve received calls and emails and comments, from journalists and non-journalists alike, either in favor of or in opposition to what Kyle wrote (which, basically, says we will continue to do our jobs and seek and report the truth regardless of how much access we are given to the White House). Most people who contacted us have been supportive of this message. Those who haven’t have generally, if not exclusively, been non-journalists. It is interesting, of course, to hear what people outside the industry have to say about people within it.
Journalists are a lot like scientists, really, seeking an objective truth, trying to put pieces together.
Some of that latter group of calls and emails and comments seem funny, at least at first. There’s a lot of cursing. Some contributions are innocuous enough (“fake news bastards!” “press-titutes!”), and others just sad, as they highlight how distrustful a certain percentage of our citizenry is of The Media, whatever that means.
As the week wore on, some of these comments began to frighten me, just a little. People rage at their computers, or into a voicemail box. They tell us our day “will come,” or threaten to send their husbands to kick our asses, call us “pieces of shit” and then test themselves to see how many times they can deploy “fuck” in a sentence. Like I said, funny at first. And then not so much.
And so here is my proposition. I won’t speak for all journalists or even for my organization. I will only speak for myself. You will know, of course, that we are not all the same, just as doctors and teachers and firefighters are not all the same. But you will also know that in many ways, we are. People are called to their professions for kindred reasons. And so I believe that in telling you about myself, I am in some ways telling you about them, about us, “The Media.”
I have been a journalist for going on 15 years. I didn’t always know I would be one. I didn’t know until after college that I even wanted to be one. I was drawn to language, but I hadn’t really thought about trying to make a life as a writer. It was something I would do on my own, and I didn’t know if money would ever come of it.
There is a long and a short version of how I stumbled into this field. The long version is interesting, I think, but too gangly for this purpose. And so instead we’ll go with the short, which is this: When I had no idea what do to with my young, post-college self, a friend convinced me to try to get a job at a newspaper. She knew I liked to write. I lived in Albuquerque, and I landed an internship at the city’s alt-weekly, called the Alibi. I loved it so much, I actually felt my world shift the first time I turned a page and saw my name. It was page 14.
It wasn’t just about the writing. Even in the beginning, the task of reporting an article had introduced me to a part of the city I had never known. That first story was simple. It was about the city’s new initiative to launch a rapid-transit bus system that would, in theory, make Albuquerque more walkable. I spoke to people in the city’s development office, the head of the transportation department, neighborhood association presidents and some small business owners. I had effectively been given a pass into a parallel universe. People were willing to give me their time. I liked long interviews. I had a lot of questions. I really wanted to listen. I wanted to understand everything. I wanted to figure out how all of it worked.
Every story was that way. Every story, I learned something. I tried to write honestly and clearly about what I had learned. As my stories grew in breadth, so did my position at the paper. The internship led freelance work as I wrote about PTSD treatment for veterans in a thinly stretched health care system. I was hired on staff as a reporter and copyeditor, and I began investigating alleged abuses at the city’s animal shelters, a beat I would follow for years. I took over the role of managing editor and news editor around the time I started covering hazardous waste disposal and water quality—sometimes, those two beats intersected. I was made editor in chief, the first woman to do it at my paper. I knew city and state politicians, and when election season rolled around, I led our editorial endorsement interviews.
Scientists have a hypothesis, and so they test it. Some may be better than others at dividing their hopes from their equations.
Eventually I left the paper and worked for myself as a freelance writer for several years, before moving to New York to get a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia. I started working at CJR soon after.
Some people will read this far and one word will poise itself on their tongues: “liberal.” They’ll pair that word with “bias,” and in that utterance, they’ll have summoned one truly excellent scapegoat.
The truth is that most journalists are liberal, or progressive, or Democrats—choose your label. Whether this is because liberally minded people are attracted to the field or because the act of journalism nudges people toward the left, I really don’t know.
It is also true that journalists have bias, just as all people have bias, no matter how diligently they may work to erase it. Scientists have a hypothesis, and so they test it. Some may be better than others at dividing their hopes from their equations.
Journalists are a lot like scientists, really, seeking an objective truth, trying to put pieces together. No one does it for the money. It’s a longstanding joke in the industry that most of us make very little. Some might do it for the power, or a hopeful slice of fame, although both are unlikely. I do it because I like learning, writing, and sharing. I do it because information matters, because while there are some relative truths in life, often the answer is strictly “true” or “false.”
Have my politics at any time influenced my reporting? Surely, they must have. But I strive for objectivity and fairness in the reporting that passes through my hands, whether as a writer or an editor. I have been influenced in my career not only by other journalists but, mostly, by my sources: scientists and farmers, politicians and small business owners, animal rights activists and government officials trying to do their jobs, impassioned citizens with no wealth to their name, heirs to family fortunes trying to give something back, chefs and coffee roasters and astronauts, ranchers and environmental watchdogs. I’ve spent time with governors and artists, midwives and musicians, dancers and mathematicians. I’ve been lucky.
Because of those people, and because of you, I care about getting it right. I care about hearing different sides. I want to listen. That’s the point. It’s what we do. When I write or in other ways help to form information that is sent into the ether of public consumption, it is a little bit for me, yes, but it is also for you. You may not like how I do it, and so I welcome constructive suggestions, because I always want to be better.
We’re listening now, by the way. We hear you. Many of you don’t trust us. You distrust our intentions or you distrust our ability. It’s our job to figure out how to fix that, but it’s also yours, because your access to information is what’s at stake.
Journalism belongs to you. There are page clicks and metrics and soundbites and human error and even, at times, yes, bias, unintended or otherwise. Resources in newsrooms are still strapped, and that applies to fact-checkers. The rush to be first interferes with the duty to be correct. But this pursuit exists for you. To go where you might not be able to go and ask what you might not be able to ask. To listen and observe and explore and then tell you what was found. That might not mean much to you, and that’s fine. Okay. But I’ve dedicated my life to it.
There is no conspiracy. There are just people.