Ten questions about journalism

A friend doing a survey for a class she’s taking asked me this stuff. I took enough time with it that I thought I might put it up here in case it’s interesting to people. I was very honest so I hope none of this is shocking. I’ve lightly edited it for repeated words and typos and a couple of identifying details.

1. Tell me what influenced you to choose your profession.

Honestly, fictional portrayals of reporters in movies and comics. Tintin, Clark Kent, Peter Parker; they all seemed like they wanted to do the right thing so much. I never really grew out of that. Beyond that, when I got out of school, the one thing people told me I was good at was writing arts criticism, so I sought out a career doing that. Over the subsequent years I floated toward work that could both sustain me financially (arts writing isn’t really that because it’s been deprofessionalized by websites that don’t pay their contributors) and allowed me to try to do some good in the world. Now I’m in political reporting, where I think there is the capacity, at least, to change things for the better. It’s always hard to tell whether or not you’re doing that.

2. Has it been what you expected so far? If not, explain.

Definitely not, but I don’t know what I expected, really. It’s a very desirable job and I’m extremely lucky to have it, which I mostly do because people were nice to me along the way. There’s a hierarchy among journalists driven by class, personal wealth and connections that has absolutely nothing to do with talent, intelligence or hard work and that’s difficult to square with my idealized notion of the profession as vital truth-telling. Ability, acumen and reliability really don’t correspond at all to questions of who will get a cushy job at a TV network or a major newspaper and who has to take a buyout and switch careers in their forties.

But it’s still a very interesting job even if the conditions under which I perform it are often less than ideal. A shocking amount of really good, solid, effective journalism requires nothing more than a warm body, a working phone, and a willingness to keep on doing the work until it’s done. I also thought there would be more writing involved, but in fact the writing itself is the easiest, most enjoyable, least time-consuming part of the process. The hard part is winnowing down your theories into stuff that has a high probability of being true, getting as close to the people and documents who could tell you whether those things are true or not as you can, and then adjusting your the presumptions you started with to fit what you’ve learned. It’s a discipline I wish more people understood because it helps with consuming the news as well as writing it.

3. Where do you think your profession is heading? Do you view yourself as influencing your profession?

I don’t know where journalism is headed, which is an increasing worry to me as I approach middle age. I think there’s enough recognition that it does society good that it will probably be around for a while, but it’s being pushed toward amateurism really aggressively by people who think they understand what a reporter does, but don’t. No one can tell the difference between an opinion writer and a beat reporter any more, which is quite dangerous because it leads people to believe that every story is based on nothing more than the reporter’s personal beliefs, and increasingly, newsrooms encourage staff to do all their work from a computer. You learn very different facts from the internet than you learn by talking to people on the phone; you learn a third set of facts by meeting them in person. People are very important to journalism, and I think the digitization of the broader world – not just the end of print newspapers but the cessation of voice-to-voice phone calls and technologized general isolation – have damaged our ability to report on the vital human part of most stories, even as our ability to glean factoids in a matter of instants grows exponentially.

As to whether I’m personally influencing my profession, I don’t know. Maybe. I hope I’m influencing it for the better. When I can, I tell my immediate colleagues, who are almost all extremely organized, efficient, idealistic women in their twenties, “Do what you want to do with your life. Don’t be afraid people won’t hire you or promote you because you got married or had kids or took all your vacation days.” It’s all so arbitrary anyway. We all get fired when we turn 40. Ageism is a terrifying force in my profession; hardly anybody gets to retire any more. I was recently laid off and every open position seemed to be looking for someone who was ten years younger than I am and was hungry to pay their dues by working six days a week and filing five times a day. I can’t work like that any more. I regret the time I *did* spend working like that as a younger man; all it teaches you to do is ignore your personal well-being and write sloppy stories. I was incredibly lucky to find my current gig, which is not like that, and I hope I do well in it, but I also hope I can remember how much I learned about what is personally important during the two months I was jobless. If I’m having an influence I hope it’s by convincing people to go home on time and play with their dogs or something. It’s a very hard job and it drains you of a lot of your emotional and intellectual resources which can stunt your personal relationships and isolate you.

4. Is there a philosophy, theory, or framework which guides your practice? Please describe it for me and explain how you use it to guide practice.

The philosophy of journalism is to tell the reader the truth. People have a lot of very different ideas about what that means but it’s a simple enough rule. In general it breaks down into some guidelines that are pretty direct but are hard to follow:

-Seek reliable sources.
-Consider the need of your reader to know something above the need of a source to conceal it, but report only matters of sufficient public interest.
-Report as fact only something for which you can find two corroborating sources.
-Attribute controversial facts and facts without corroboration to people making the claim.
-Don’t ascribe guilt to someone who’s been accused of a crime, only to someone who’s been convicted of a crime.
-Publish corrections when you make mistakes.
-Be kind to regular people who are going to be affected by your reporting, especially if they’re going to be affected adversely. That doesn’t mean don’t ever do reporting that will affect the regular people in your stories adversely, but it does mean to be as thoughtful about it as you can.

And, for me personally, I think it’s important to show far less mercy, if any, to people who have sought power and attained it.

The question of “sufficient public interest” is both difficult and important—for example, Breitbart News, a site I abhor, used to have a story tag labeled “black crime.” The stories weren’t bad in and of themselves—they carefully reported actual incidents that had happened in the world—but because they reported them so selectively, even the most diligent reader would come away believing black people committed all crimes, which is already a harmful stereotype that perpetuates crimes against black people. So if their goal was to diminish crime, they were failing at it really badly. Story selection is an incredibly delicate and amorphous discipline and the one I worry about the most.

5. Tell me about any conflicts between your personal philosophy and the philosophy you use at work.

I often feel bad for the people I cover, especially low-level employees in communications offices working for large and immoral companies or parts of the government that are acting counter to the public good. Often they used to be hacks like me. Those people don’t make the decisions that have caused their employers to receive critical coverage, but they’re very easy to hide behind and blame and they frequently lose jobs or get in trouble over a stray remark to a person like me. I try to square that suffering with the good I think it does the public to know that, for example, a nuclear power plant is so decrepit it might melt down and kill people, but it’s hard. You always wonder if your reporting has made a difference even in a situation like that—which I covered last year, by the way, it’s not a hypothetical—and if it hasn’t, whether it’s worth the misery it causes.

6. In what ways do you use research in your position? Are you comfortable reading research articles?

I love research. When I talk to other reporters it’s often just bullshitting about old newspapers and lawsuits on PACER. It’s static, it’s all there on paper and can be rereported, and the public has a short enough memory that there are frequently bits and pieces readers find shocking or titillating despite their having been a matter of record for years or sometimes decades. A lot of the happier reporters I know have gone into true crime writing or book-length recent history projects.

7. Tell me about someone who has been (or currently is) a role model for you. How did you find this person? How does this individual help/guide you? Is this person aware that you view him/her as a role model?

My friend and mentor Linda Winer will probably always be my role model. We’ve fallen out of touch over the last few years but I still hold her in such high esteem. We met during a workshop when I was fresh out of undergrad and she was an august critic at Newsday. She liked me enough to introduce me to her editor, who gave me my first real assignment. She said so many smart things to me whenever we spent time together, and she hung on through so much upheaval in the industry not merely as an arts critic, which I think of as a hugely vital but often woefully underappreciated position, but as a woman at a time when it was even harder to work in this industry as a woman than it is now. I hope they name a theater after her when she’s gone and I hope that doesn’t happen for a hundred more years.

8. How do you use information technology in your work? How has this changed since you entered your profession?

Information technology has made the processes of reporting much easier by creating open access to things like lawsuits and public records, but it has totally devastated the business model. Everyone expects to get their news for free from Twitter or aggregator blogs that rip off the extremely difficult work of beat reporters. As unions have collapsed it’s also resulted in an era of “always-on-call” reporting where you’re expected to be available on your phone at all times, which ruins your free time and saturates you in the news in a way that prevents you from keeping perspective on what is and isn’t important on your beat. Small changes seem seismic and subtle shifts in interest and direction that will ultimately tell you what the reader finds useful go unnoticed. I hope some day I can get rid of my smartphone.

9. When you first entered your profession, did you feel welcomed and supported as a novice in the field? How do you view your view your role with novices currently?

I felt welcomed by specific people when I first started as an intern at Variety; John Dempsey, the senior TV reporter, was incredibly kind to me and always had time to answer dumb question after dumb question. My boss David Rooney was also very supportive; he scared the hell out of me at first but he inspired a lot of loyalty and he worked very hard on my stories. I don’t say he was patient but he cared at least as much as I did about the quality of my writing and as someone who wanted to be taken seriously as a theater critic at a very tender age that meant the world to me. I miss criticism a lot but I feel like working under David was wonderful training for work as a political reporter.

I love novices. They tend to be incredibly enthusiastic and reward institutional advocacy and support with loyalty and hard work. It’s really important to show up for them if you’re a senior reporter because they’re not going to complain if they get a short check or someone tells them not to file their hours. I hope as I get older I can throw my weight around a little more on their behalf; I think it’s one of the best things you can do at any job. Beyond that, there’s so much territoriality and credit-hogging in journalism that if you make a space for younger reporters you’ll often find them very accommodating and helpful. I think I’ve grown into that; as a younger man I felt threatened by people my age or younger who were working the same patch. But the longer you’re around the greater your expertise becomes, and the harder it is to step on your toes. If someone writes a story I want, that’s OK. I’m pretty confident I’ll have another good idea tomorrow. If someone with my knowledge base is constantly on my patch at my publication, there’s the potential for our work together to be twice as good. That perspective took a lot of time to grow into.

10. Do safety, security, quality, and confidentiality play any role(s) in your current position? Explain.

Yes, a huge role. Reporting on governments, which have unlimited money and are very comfortable with violence, is a dicey proposition. My computer is locked up tight as a drum and I’ve come up with a bunch of ways to secure it so even I can’t get into it if I’m ever in real trouble. I’ve often traveled to out-of-the-way places for my work where it would be hard to call for help, which makes me paranoid now. As I’ve written about Russian hack attacks over the last couple of years I’ve gotten at least one email I’m sure was from a hacker; it was quite a convincing one, too. It’s important for me to maintain the confidentiality of people who speak to me under certain conditions, because they could be subject to lawsuits, deportation, firing or any number of other consequences. Every journalist loves a whistleblower but they’re a huge responsibility and you can endanger them by going to press even if you’re very careful. An acquaintance I like very much published a piece not too long ago that I hope will lead to some major governmental reforms, but a secret tracking code on the document he published was traceable back to his source—whom even he had never met—and she was arrested and will probably go to prison for years. It’s sobering.

Linda, my theater critic mentor mentioned above, gave me the best advice I’ve ever heard about information security, which is a topic with a lot of charlatans muddying the waters with jargon and half-baked theories: It was after we’d been to a show Linda was reviewing and I’d wanted to talk about one of the actors or maybe a producer (Linda ritually refused to talk about the content of the show because she didn’t want your opinion coloring her own). Anyway I tried to strike up this conversation, which I thought was far enough afield from the quality of the show that it wouldn’t transgress on her rule, and she shook her head and pursed her lips and told me to wait until we were three blocks from the theater. So we walked three blocks from the theater and I kind of rolled my eyes and asked her why she’d made us walk all that way when there was obviously no one who cared to eavesdrop on us. And she gave me a big smile and said, “The walls have assholes.”

Author: samthielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is samthielman.com, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.

One thought on “Ten questions about journalism”

  1. Thanks so much for this. I’m so tired of hearing journalism is dead. What advice might you have for someone wanting to start a journalistic career at a later age?

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