This month on September 11 I marked 13 years as a journalist. So I thought I should dedicate this week’s blog post to an activity that has dominated my life for the past 13 years. Of course, it’s a long story.
IN THE BEGINNING: WHAT AM I?
I had many dreams and aspirations before I decided on a path to become a journalist. In fact I wanted to be a great many things. I had dreams of becoming a cartoonist: working as an animator for Walt Disney, I also dreamed of being a dancer, a singer, maybe even an actress. Everyone in my family had at some point stood silently near the bathroom watching me talk to myself on the mirror while trying out different facial expressions. They would watch me practice over and over at the mirror, talking in a language even I didn’t understand until I mastered the art of crying and laughing on the spot. During those times I took on different characters, a broken-hearted lover, maybe some kind of a star, a teacher, maybe a university professor at an academic institution of high repute, a writer, a mother and so on. At some point I tried competing for the Miss South Africa Title. Alas.
A WHOLE WORLD IN MY HEAD
The list was (still is) endless. One of the options I considered to my mother’s chagrin, was joining the army. I thought then than it would be the easiest way for me to acquire a driver’s licence at no cost to my parents. I wanted to learn how to be disciplined because I had a short attention span and would find myself wondering to foreign lands in the middle of tasks, while washing dishes for example, studying or trying to pay attention during Math class. I was intrigued by the story of numbers . By suggesting I join the army I hoped I would reign in the dreamer in me, and become more like my father who is disciplined, hardworking and always on time. As my mother and I poured over alternatives for my future career while lying on her bed, looking dreamily into the ceiling like lovers planning a future together, the word journalism surfaced. My mother acted as my career guide and told me:” you like to talk; to write, you are very curious, you enjoy reading, finding information and you want to travel, so journalism would be perfect for you. Plus you enjoy asking questions and you can be on TV too if you want to”. It had never occurred to me that I could be a journalist. I was more than a little overwhelmed with the number of things I could do or be for rest of my life, and at 17 the world seemed to contain an infinite amount of possibilities. But when my mother mentioned journalism I thought this would be a good career choice. It seemed the best way to contain all my aspirations. So I enrolled at the best institution for practical journalism at the time and here I am today.
WHAT IS JOURNALISM ABOUT?: AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH
An online definition of a journalist reads as follows:
“A person who writes for newspaper or magazines or prepares news to be broadcast on radio and television. Synonyms include: a reporter, correspondent, newsman, newswoman, newspaperman, columnist, writer, commentator, reviewer, blogger, investigative journalist, photojournalist, war correspondent, lobby correspondent, editor, sub-editor, copy editor, paparazzo, pressman, legman, wireman and the list continues.”
I think that’s the best definition. Even journalism professors struggle to define who or what is a journalist. So to keep it simple we will go with the above description. My entry into journalism was a very frightening event for me. I was never sure of myself at all. I was always scared and intimidated by fellow students and later colleagues who always seemed more intelligent, knowledgeable and more experienced than I was. My favourite subjects included History, Business Economics and Politics. History because it was fascinating, it put current events into context, Business Economics because it made sense to me (I understood the basic principle of supply and demand.) Politics because our third year Politics lecturer Ashwin Desai was so passionate about his subject he brought the world into our lecture room and made what we were studying real and tangible. Writing essays, however, was my worst fear. I really could not imagine how I ended up studying journalism after all. A profession which at its core involved copious amounts of writing. I remember I once broke out in hives while writing an essay during an exam because I was so nervous. It took me 13 years to gain control over my nervous condition. Even today I have to work up the courage to start writing or even to speak when I am live on Television and or Radio. Each time I write, it feels as though I am writing for the first time.
TOO MANY QUESTIONS…
While studying journalism I learnt that the point of being a journalist, at least as far as I understood it was to ask questions. Who (did) What, Where, When, How and Why. And after you have answered all those questions ask the most important one of all: why should anyone care?
Imagine then my surprise when I discovered years into the profession that: asking questions, the very reason for my existence as a journalist was the worst thing one could do in this profession! I finally discovered that while I was taught/learned to be a journalist, someone who asks questions, in order to give context to current affairs. No one cared about the history of why things are the way they are or why people behave the way they do. In the real world journalists were merely reporters. People who merely presented you with the most basic answers to the five questions. A reporter for me was similar to a minute-taker at meeting, someone who takes minutes of a meeting. It’s a great skills to take great notes, but it’s not journalism. The more you questioned the status quo the more you were ignored, or became less popular with the officials. To get ahead in the profession you had to choose sides and not the middle ground as I was taught. Journalism had become a cross between public relations and reportage. More over in many cases as a general reporter even if you wanted to give context to your work there was never the time to. Newsroom were so that you had to jump from one story to another, and sometimes even do multiple stories a day. Which were ultimately identical to your competitors. Journalists or reporters were often recruited into high level communication positions in government and business so that, journalist often just copied and pasted text from press-releases without question as if it were their own original writing. Spokespeople who were once journalist were even harder nuts to crack.
I always refused to be called a reporter, always thinking in my heart that I was a journalist not a parrot. But the industry dictated otherwise. Each Media house has an agenda, is politically affiliated to a number of people in powerful positions and the merit of the story was always weighed on these factors. The higher up you go – the more compromises you had to make. At the end of the day, you didn’t want to bite the hand that feeds you so to speak, even if the chain of command is as far as the distance between Johannesburg, South Africa and Timbuktu, Mali.
BEYOND THE QUESTIONS: ETHICAL JOURNALISM
So when I finally decided to work independently as a journalist I discovered an even darker side of journalism which I would not have believed existed, had it not happen to me. I was on more than one occasion offered an exclusive story that could potentially put me in the league of award-winning journalists. “All you need to do is just put your by-line (name) to the story. You don’t have to do anything I will write the story for you” He said. I was incredulous, and looked at him laughing because I seriously thought he was joking. “How do you think journalists get leaked documents? Do you think all those famous investigative journalist you read about, write their own stories? “he continued realizing that I had no clue. “ Do you think they just stumble on documents?” This is how they do it he said. You just let me write the story and all you have to do is add your name to it.” He pleaded. I refused his offer and suddenly felt relieved. Until that moment I had never doubted the integrity of journalists – I being one them of course. I understood that some days are better than others, as some stories are better than others, but never had it occurred to me that journalists or reporters could participate in ghost writing, pass –off articles or stories they had no hand in writing and pretend it was their own hard work.
I always admired journalists who won awards, because I understand the amount of time and effort that goes into writing a great story. It has been my daily struggle for the past 13 years and each year I hope to write better than the last. I had up until that moment no idea what’s so ever, that journalists were capable of that, more people I had looked up to. For the first time in my life I was proud of myself – proud that even though I had never won an award or been acknowledged for my work by any organization or editor in the country, all the work I had done as a journalist had been my own original work. I was not winning someone’ else’ award. And if I were to ever win anything, it would be based on my own original work. The man in question eventually refused to grant me an interview, but in the end, I was able to write the story without his help, I had to think of other ways of finding information, I had to depend on my own eyes and ears, and finally I had to trust myself. I finally had to ask myself how much do I want to win anything, and is it worth it and is that why I was a journalist in the first place. There is a cost to everything.
A THIN LINE: OUTSIDERS LOOKING IN:
Perhaps I was inspired by the movie starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts called the Pelican Brief. Where the journalist (Denzel Washington) worked in collaboration with an economics student – an informant (Julia Roberts) to write a story which uncovered corruption within the american judicial system. It was dangerous but it’s the story that caught me, the potential power in being a journalist, that you can change history, or someone’s life. Perhaps I thought I could travel around the world, go places I would not otherwise have access to and meet people who would pass me by the next day. A word of caution: not everyone who says they are journalist is actually a journalist. Perhaps I got into this profession for the wrong reasons, but I stayed for the right ones. I believed in justice, in the right to know, in providing people with information that could change their lives, help people tell their own stories, uncover the hidden side of things – how they work or don’t work. In fact truth be told, I approached this profession naively, thinking that everyone had the best intentions at heart. So what have I learnt? That all those years spent in the mirror have helped me to keep a straight face in the face of danger – even when I was shaking inside. Words are numbers. And numbers are words. So If I love words it means I love numbers too!!! The more I write the more I realize that it’s a mathematical equation. It is ultimate all about numbers which are words. I could tap into any career imaginable just by writing about it. I am in the right profession. But here’s a fun list of things I learnt in the past 13 years of being *flinch * a reporter – journalist:
13 LESSONS FROM A 13 YEAR OLD JOURNALIST:
1. Information is key: read money.
2. Spokespeople/Media liaisons/ Public relations personnel are information gatekeepers. In other words they are trained to manage information: their purpose in life is to feed you only the information they want you to know. They are trained to stop you from asking probing questions or from finding out information they want to hide.
3. Politicians are trained to be creative with the truth – and only tell the truth (leak information) when it serves their interests
4. There’s an infinitive number of ways to obtaining information. Officials ideally should be the last the last point of contact.
5. It’s the “invisible” people, that you don’t pay attention to who can give you amazing stories – which are true – family and friends, the homeless, etc.
6. Everyone has an agenda. Including your editor, your organization, you, every one.
7. Ultimately journalism – is about storytelling – the stuff that Novelists do without having to back it up with proof.
8. Asking (critical/simple) questions can be a career limiting exercise ( Choose carefully who you work for)
9. Sometimes people don’t want to know the truth. The truth is not always convenient. So your great expose can be conveniently ignored.
10. There are many truths.
11. Journalism is fun ( choose wisely who you work for)
12. You can go to most things and places for free. ( if you don’t mind doing PR read marketing and public relations)
13. Acting is a great skill to have as a journalist (use at own risk)
A sneak preview to my upcoming project…