I did most of the talking, which is a bad form for a reporter.
Earlier this week, I was asked to join a colleague at a meeting hosted by the World Affairs Council in St. Louis. Every couple of years the WAC brings in a group of journalists from other countries and asks the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists to sit down with them and talk about the similarities and differences between their work and ours.
Two years ago it was Russian journalists, and this year it was Chinese journalists and professors. Due to a confluence of schedules and a nasty bug going around, only my vice president Tammy Merrett and I were available to meet with them.
We did most of the talking, and the time went so fast that I never got to ask the questions I wanted to ask them. Questions about how much government control still exists over their work, and whether it is explicit or subtly implicit. Questions about the social issues in their country, and whether they lean more toward the traditional objectivity model or more toward advocacy. About the state of their job market, and whether the shift from print to digital has changed their landscape as it is changing ours.
But they had so many questions for us. We were working through an interpreter, which always takes me a little time to adjust – I have to remember to remove my earpiece while I’m talking, or I get confused having my own words interpreted into my ear in Chinese. Still, I wished I could just sit and listen; I find the cadences of the language fascinating without comprehending a word.
A lot of our time is spent gaining definitions. For example, the concept of a trade organization like SPJ vs. the concept of a trade union, which is a very different structure governed by different laws. They had several questions about unions, some of which I had to defer since I’ve never worked in a union newsroom.
Other discussions included the First Amendment and ethical balances for the veracity and impact of the protected speech; about pushback against journalists in the U.S. with police harassment and arrests during protests; about more subtle pressures primarily on student media, from student governments or college administrators trying to shut down funding in retaliation for unflattering coverage.
They wanted to talk about Edward Snowden, and about the balance between actual national security and putting lives in danger with coverage. They wanted to talk about credentials, about what structures exist to allow journalists access to do their jobs and the difference between being issued a press pass and being “licensed” to practice journalism.
And then we were back to the First Amendment again, about the advocacy of SPJ and other organizations and our role in fighting to maintain our freedoms.
We talked about small family papers and large corporate-owned media, so Tammy and I can do our annual arm-wrestle about the benefits and problems with each. We talked about bias and objectivity, about taking responsibility for errors or mangled coverage, and about the Ethics Code as guideline and statement of principles, but not a legal bludgeon. It was pretty heavy material for a morning without coffee.
I had to step out for a moment during discussions of intentional bias and advocacy journalism masquerading as traditional hard news. When I came back into the room, Tammy was talking about the frustration of journalists when we see someone shredding the ethics code with slanted, false or nearly-false coverage.
“So we’ve dealt with Fox News?” I said, and it got a laugh, even from our guests (after translation).
I love these meetups, because we tend to forget in the little microcosms of our newsrooms that there is a whole world out there doing journalism just like we are – but without the freedoms and structures we so often take for granted. They had so many questions and we answered them all, but I wish I had kept my eye on the clock so I could remember to ask them some things.
I wanted to ask them if their readers send them nasty messages calling them names, and how they deal with the disheartenment when they pour so much effort into a story and everyone misses the point.
I wanted to ask them if their families understand the long hours and low pay, and if they ever feel like they have to apologize for choosing the life they did.
I wanted to ask them what they do when a story is killed, and they know it needs to go out there, but there’s an insurmountable barrier preventing them from speaking.
I wanted to ask them if they love what they do, even if it doesn’t love them back.
Those are probably not appropriate questions for the forum. But they’re the questions I wanted to ask. Maybe next time, if I can remember to keep the earpiece out of my ear – and listen more than speak.
• Note: the headline was courtesy of Google Translate, as I am hopelessly monolingual. I sure hope it says what I meant to say.