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Who’d Be a Journalist?

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By Hector Tobar

Reprinted from The New York Times

 

EUGENE, Ore. — JONATHAN BACH’s dream job is in a profession that’s widely reviled, poorly compensated and often dangerous. A lot of people tell him it’s doomed to become obsolete. None of that seems to matter to him.

He still wants to be a journalist.

This summer Mr. Bach got his first taste of daily newspaper reporting, at the East Oregonian, a publication based in Pendleton. He covered rodeos, Native American tribes and the opening of a new bar called the Strip’n Chute. He wrote a lot, wrote fast — and earned minimum wage.

“It’s the best job in the world,” he said, with all the earnestness you’d expect from a 21-year-old college senior.

To enter journalism these days you have to be a true believer. If you can find an entry-level job — and newspaper staffs declined by 10 percent last year — you will more than likely take a vow of poverty worthy of a monk. Even in television, a news reporter can make as little as $18,000 a year.

In our polarized society, public trust of the media is at an all-time low, according to a recent Gallup poll. Across the political spectrum, some accuse us of spreading insidious liberal ideas, while others call us lackeys of a corporate, right-wing conspiracy. Worse yet, people think of us as heartless jerks who’d make a little boy cry or kick an immigrant in pursuit of a story.

The truth is that the best journalists connect with readers, viewers and listeners by being open-minded and compassionate. That’s one reason so many people remain in the profession, despite the poor pay and long hours. As Mr. Bach learned on assignments like interviewing a rodeo camp volunteer, empathy is a key part of the job.

“You get to share stories and you get to see things through someone else’s eyes every day,” he said.

I tell the young reporters I teach at the University of Oregon to ignore the gloom that surrounds the profession and its future. People will always have an appetite for true stories well told.

And they will never stop wanting essential information, delivered quickly and accurately. When a gunman opened fire on Oct. 1 at a community college in Roseburg, some 70 miles south of Eugene, several news outlets contacted our university’s journalism department and asked: Do you know a young freelance reporter or photographer we can hire? Right away?

Cameron Shultz, a graduate student who was hired by national television networks and local stations, took his camera and captured evocative images at an evacuation center and a candlelight vigil.

We’ve tried to teach our students that even the simplest story requires craft and discipline.

Consider the recent example of Alison Parker, a 24-year-old reporter for a Virginia television station. Like Mr. Bach, she’d started her career as an intern. Her last story was about Smith Mountain Lake, a local landmark.

The video that Ms. Parker’s killer posted of her murder reveals that he was pointing a gun at her, within her field of vision, for at least 10 seconds before he opened fire. Ms. Parker was interviewing the head of the local chamber of commerce. She was too focused on doing her job well to realize her life was in danger.

“When you go on television, you lose a bit of yourself,” said Rebecca Force, a veteran television news reporter and director who is now a professor at the University of Oregon. When a reporter is on live, as Ms. Parker was, Professor Force said: “You’re in the moment. You have little time. You’re on. There is no going back and erasing it. You have just one take.”

Ms. Parker and her cameraman, Adam Ward, died reporting the sort of everyday, unabashedly local story that is the bread and butter of news operations everywhere. She held the mike steady as her interviewee said, “This is our community and we want to share information that will help us grow and develop …”

Young journalists operate on a strange mix of adrenaline and idealism. They savor the rush that comes with making a deadline, or conquering the stage fright of a live broadcast. And they believe that if they master those skills, they’ll contribute something important to their communities.

“I don’t think that one photograph is going to change the world, but it’s a record of where we are,” the Mexican journalist Rubén Espinosa said in one of his last interviews before he was killed in Mexico City in July. He covered the drama unfolding in the Mexican state of Veracruz: official corruption, violent organized crime, disappearances, protest and resistance.

Mr. Espinosa’s work had earned him death threats and the enmity of powerful people in Veracruz. Many American journalists working abroad have faced similar dangers from those who would silence them — including James Foley, a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

“He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people,” Mr. Foley’s mother said, after he was killed by his Islamic State captors in Syria last year.

As a kid growing up in Bend, Ore., Mr. Bach dreamed of being a foreign correspondent. He’d fall asleep listening to BBC radio reports from distant lands. India. Pakistan. Russia.

His goal now is to report from Eastern Europe. In addition to studying journalism, he’s in his third year of Russian language classes. And he’s already been to Ukraine and Azerbaijan to try his hand at freelance reporting.

“There’s nothing like dropping into a country for a week, and reporting a story, and getting it published,” he said.

Mr. Bach was also among the University of Oregon students asked to cover the tragedy in Roseburg. For The Daily Beast, he interviewed friends of an English teacher who died in the shooting, and a nursing student who suddenly found her class transformed into an emergency room.

I’m confident that Mr. Bach conducted himself professionally on this assignment. And that he remembered what we professors taught him and his fellow students when we sent them to cover stories on campus, at City Hall and at county fairs:

Be respectful to the people you interview. Double-check the spelling of every name. And always make your deadlines.

Héctor Tobar, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, is the author, most recently, of “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free,” and a contributing opinion writer.

 
 

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