Monday, 14 December 2015

Letter to a young journalist

Developing a thick skin is a concept I’ve never quite understood. Sure, I get what it means in theory. But how the hell does it work in practice? I mean, what exactly is the effect? When someone gives you criticism, are you supposed to take in on board or let it bounce off? Both are suggested, but they’re mutually exclusive. I prefer the concept of “fake it till you make it”.

That way, you’re creating a persona in your mind that you wish to be. If criticism would be helpful to that persona, then you use it to reinforce that projection. If the criticism is not useful, then simply disregard it. The power is in your hands. What would that persona do? That’s the criteria. This is the only way I’ve figured out how to survive at (any) work. When I walk through that front door, I “become” a journalist. Outside, I’m me. Inside at work, I’m a whole new person.

It’s like learning a language. If you’re learning French, the only way it’s going to stick is if you pretend to be Frenchperson and believe that your speaking in an accent. Otherwise, your brain fights against itself and the learning doesn’t work. I find it helpful to “become” a different person when I’m working because I know how important an image is for other people (and ourselves).

If that image gets muddled with my “real” self, then how can I ever know the difference? How can I ever relax? Developing a thick skin is what people who feel out of control say. It’s something they’re told to think, because it means they can be controlled by others. That’s why I don’t like that phrase.

Besides, every day that passes I feel like I find out something different about journalism and what it means to be a journalist. Last week, I thought differently. Next week, I’ll think differently. The main thread I’ve noticed is how much power this role has. I can make stories either exist or not exist. I have the power to shape people’s reality. And all it requires is 500-700 words.

In all seriousness, we reporters have more power than the prime minister to shape this country. After all, if you think about it, he needs our support if he wants to be re-elected. Without journos, he can’t get his message out. Without journos, he doesn’t exist. Now THAT’s power. Think about all the good things you could use it for.

I suspect few other journos actually understand this, which is why no one talks about it. But it is real. They certainly don’t talk about journalism like this at Uni. So put yourself in the shoes of every person you talk to. Before you called them up, they were a statistic – one out of 4.whatever million people living in New Zealand. They could have gone through their entire lives without their name known by more than about 100 people.

Then you showed up. Your only job is to take their words to comment on a story you were already going to write - and they do this willingly, as in, free. Let me repeat that: they do this for free. Why? Is it because they think you’re special and important? No, it’s because they think they are special and important. They want to be seen. And everyone you talk to exists only because you say so. I don’t know about you, but I find that incredible.

And guess what? You and I were not elected into this powerful role. No one votes in ballots every three years to put professional journalists behind a keyboard. No one quite knows how the journo hiring process works, even if they have a sneaking suspicion. The only thing they care about is whether you call them up or feed them the information they’ve been told to want. When they see you behind a desk or talking on a phone – even a picture in the paper next to a story does this – they don’t think, they know, that you’re supposed to be sitting there. They don’t ask whether you’re a “real” journalist. Some way, some how, you ARE a journalist. Do you want to know why they think this?

It’s because the entire system is set up for them to believe this in a way that really, really, really does feel like it’s their free choice. When people think of journalism – I mean actually think about journalism – they tend to discover that there’s no reason why journalists should be believed over anyone else’s opinion. Journalists have no objective access to the truth. What a reporter says about a topic is never true (in the capital “T” sense of the word), it’s just what they could discover in the available time between deadlines.

But that is not the assumption of the reader. Instead, the reader implicitly thinks that truth and reality only come to their eyes via a media (hence the name). This is what people mean when they say media teaches you how to think, not what to think. That you are writing for a “newspaper” is integral to this illusion. Think about it: did you invent the idea of a newspaper before you got to the to this paper? No, of course not. The machinery was in place centuries before you arrived, all you had to do was slip into the role. This the case in reverse for all your readers.

So what’s the difference between you and a blogger? The paper masthead. I know that’s not a funny joke, but it’s accurate. The two roles would be identical without the centuries and millennia of people being told that truth and reality only come to us via a media (before newspapers it was universities, before them it was clergy, before them it was shamans, etc). Someone must tell us what the truth is, because all our lives we’ve been told that we shouldn’t trust our own minds or eyes. Why do we believe this lie? Because we were told to. Simple as that. Is it possible to stop believing this lie? Of course, but how would you know the truth? That’s the trick. Smart, huh!

I tell you all this not to bore you, but to help describe how I see this job. It’s not a job at all, it is a symbol. You walk in here, pick up the phone and start writing and you “become” something that doesn’t, but absolutely MUST, exist in the minds of everyone walking outside on the street. Without you, the whole illusion of society collapses. I’m not kidding about this.

Without the media, how would anyone know to do anything you currently take for granted? Things like: voting, paying taxes, obeying the speed limit, earning money, buying Mallowpuffs, even praying towards Mecca. If you didn’t hear about any of these things through the media (books, TV, radio, internet, newspapers, etc), how then would you know what action to take to be part of this society? How would you know what to believe if you didn’t trust that those media had some kind of access to the truth? It doesn’t occur to people that the only reason they trust the media is precisely because the media told them too.

I don’t know about you, but this blows my mind. This is why I enjoy what I do, and why I enjoy learning about what this is. I’m an observer at heart, so I always prefer to watch rather than participate. Between you and I the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do is get “behind the curtain” to see what happens as people are controlled and society is structured. I thought this could be done by working for the government in some secret agency in a basement. But the more I understand about what I do right now, the more I realise you and I have more power and are further behind that curtain than any of those snivelling spooks or government officials.

I don’t know what you want out of journalism, but you won’t get it anywhere else. I can almost guarantee that. The things you see, the conversations you have, the ideas you discover and the people you meet are amazing. Truly amazing. And you get paid for it! Paid to write! I mean, jesus, that’s like getting paid to piss around.

I really do mean journalism could be the best thing you’ll ever do. I’m just getting a feeling for that now, and it’s pretty cool (if not a little scary). But I think I’d be suspicious of this job if it were too easy. It’s not. It can be very difficult at times. And for what it’s worth, I want you to stick around. This feeling you have now will pass, I know this. I want to be sitting across from you when it does.

No comments: