Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What is Journalism for? Who is a Journalist?

I don’t blog. I do not tweet, nor do I text. Until a few months ago, I was the oldest person I knew who had never before owned a cell phone. The cell phone I have now is worth a single-digit sum—it's a dinosaur with terrible service, but it's generally useful for calling home when my fridge malfunctions and I can’t afford to restock it.

In that sense, I am not a journalist.

By completing this assignment, I also forced outside of my usual writing style. I write to entertain—either through escapist creativity and epic plot, or through my alleged talent for making mundane, everyday situations hilarious. Over the past two years, I’ve made a living by poking fun at myself, not waxing philosophical about my life purpose.

And so in that sense, I am not a journalist.

In fact, I’m really not a great candidate for journalism at all. I’m socially awkward, have no real desire to interact with other people, and don’t particularly like being in the limelight. I feel no need to record history, meet important people, or participate in important events.

So why, then, am I of all people attracted to as difficult a career as journalism? Because I am, above anything else, a writer. And as a writer, my first allegiance is to story—capturing the big picture as well as the smallest details and containing them on a page. I strive to offer curious readers the sights and smells, the sensations and feelings, the emotions, even the very essence of every scene I set out to write. Is this journalism? Maybe. Maybe not.

Central to all writing, everything from hard news to surrealist fantasy, is truth. The greatest writers of all genres strive for accuracy, whether in describing the lord of an underwater castle or the local guy who collects French stamps in his basement. In either case, if my account is not accurate, it is of no importance or use to anyone. It becomes meaningless. Ink on paper. Nothing.

The first rule of fantasy is that there are no rules—anything goes. But the greatest challenge of writing fantasy is creating from scratch a fantastic world capable of entirely absorbing the reader. This is where the genres differ. The world of journalism is a world of rules. Rules banning certain words, rules about word counts, rules about the way the sentence should look when it comes off the press. I’m sure there is, somewhere out there, a rule for exactly how one’s heart should beat while typing out the last sentence of a story with seconds left before the deadline. We’ve reduced writing to a math equation. Subject plus verb plus object minus adjective equals quality sentence.

It seems to me that buried somewhere under all the rules and theories is journalism’s soul. We have forgotten why people read. The very act of picking up a book, newspaper or magazine suggests we are looking to experience something beyond the small sphere of reality we experienced while at work or school. Humans naturally long for a sense of community. We are driven toward unity.

That is the purpose of my journalism—to unite and bind together communities. And when we feel a similar sense of grief at a victim’s loss, or outrage at government wrongdoing, or even amusement when a local professor claims to know how to say “may the force be with you” in a half-dozen foreign languages, we connect emotionally. Such accounts make the world seem a little smaller.

In this sense, anyone with eyes, ears, a heart and a pen can be a journalist. Yet at the same time, there is something to be said for having in a society individuals who are willing to skip lunch, dinner, and maybe a few priceless moments of shut-eye to bring to the community dinner table an account of what a flash flood was like. Without collective knowledge and experience to bring us together, we exist only in isolated, fragmented spheres of reality surrounded by a huge and uncaring world where no one seems to think or feel like us.

When I set out to share with others a story of what an event felt like, I am a journalist.

1 comment:

  1. This is beautiful. What you've written makes me feel bound to /you/.

    You'll do well. =)