The Poynter Institute recently published the late Eugene Patterson’s final thoughts on journalism. The article, which can be read here, was full of small epiphanies, each resonating strongly within me as a young, doe-eyed journalist.
Patterson begins, “Journalists get to originate, validate, and illuminate the real news if they carry forward the character of their calling. How they make the good stuff pay will follow the quality as it always has.”
When I decided to get a Master’s Degree in this field, I was extremely unsure if A)I had the agressive, go get em skills needed in the dog-eat-dog journalistic arena B) if it would actually lead to a career.
With many peers in the medical, education, finance, and law fields, I was not quite sure where journalism was on the spectrum of careers that make your parents proud.I had heard countless stories of journalists being corrupt individuals bending the truth for the sake of shock value and simply telling the public what they wanted to hear to gain profit.
Every time I tell people what I’m getting my degree in, there is the inevitable pause followed by “Oh interesting. Well you know journalism is dead.” Or “you know newspapers are dead.” Or “Everything’s changing. Is there a future for journalism?”
I entered the program as a walking defense mechanism, ready to block and tackle, ready to prove to the world that I was not entering a dying field, and that journalism was the right choice that would give me fulfillment, help me make a difference, and pay the rent.
As I begin my second semester of graduate school with a little more experience/training under my belt, I am beginning to see that journalism still has a place, a purpose, and a future. Patterson has equipped me with the epiphany that good journalists can make it work as long they have the character, curiosity, and knowledge.
A few tidbits of Patterson Wisdom followed by Katie’s Wisdom.
“Be truthful; if it hurts, just say ow,” Patterson says. A careful fabrication of lies may be tempting and appealing, but it takes a smart, creative journalist to find the truth and uncover its meaning and message. Human beings are fascinating subjects with flaws and desires that do not need to be embellished or redesigned to make a good story.
“Be skeptical; ask, what’s missing here?” says Patterson. I have learned that anyone can sit down and interview someone with a standard list of questions. But, if you ask the standard questions, you’ll get standard answers, many of them predictable, rehearsed, and quite frankly, uninteresting. It takes a good journalist to muster up the courage to call someone out on a possible loophole or ask that burning question about that giant elephant in the room. As much as I hate awkwardness and conflict, I am learning, as a journalist, these are the hurdles one must jump in the pursuit of truth.
“And be easy in the going; clasp the comical, and dance it around the floor,” says Patterson. This is an order I am glad to take. There are stories of heartbreak and tragedy. There are stories about serious matters and intriguing mysteries. However, weaving the comical aspects of human nature into a piece is a beautiful thing. Beyond simply making a good read, it breathes life into the story. Take something and run with it.
Patterson ends the article by stating, “Serious and saleable handling of news is feeling its way slowly but surely to modern means of delivery that will pay the cost of newsgathering. That’s inevitable because it’s essential. And the new product worth delivering has to carry forward its old character whose commandments are graven in the printer’s stone.”
Patterson’s words of wisdom are like tiny stones of epiphanies crashing against my window. It’s inspiring to realize that as we move into a modern era, the old adages of character and truth remain central stones for the foundation of journalism.