On Being a Journalist

(essay written for the Regina Press Club Scholarship committee)

   The thing that confuses me, when I pause to consider what I'm doing here in this hectic newsroom full of telephone-dialing, caffeine-swilling, deadline-crunching people, is this: why do our subjects talk to us?
   Sometimes all we want is a simple recitation of facts: who, what, when, where, why. That's what public relations officers and media spokespeople are there to give, and they do it effectively and efficiently.
   But sometimes, a journalist demands more. We're trained to ask the hard questions, the ones that draw out emotion, opinion, the grit, the gore, the joy, the grief. Information quotes won't suffice, our professors and editors tell us: go for the gut.
   Sometimes I'll get an interview subject on the phone, or we'll sit down at the round table in the interviewing room, fluorescent lights beaming down on our heads, and I, a total stranger, will begin to ask my questions: "How did you feel when your home was being evacuated?" "What prompted you to join a support group for manic depressives?" "Why do you care so deeply what happens to migrant workers in India?"
   And they answer my questions, and instead of just listening, I write down everything they say, without sharing anything of my personal opinions, beliefs, values. And then we shake hands, knowing that despite this intimate hour we'll never see each other again, and I will take what I want from my subject's personal life and shape it into something for hundreds of thousands of people to read, people who don't know me and don't know the interview subject. And that's okay. That's a journalist's job.
   So why? Why do our subjects give us this right to ask these questions that only their oldest and dearest of friends may otherwise ask, then spread the answers to thousands of others whom we'll never know?
   I suppose one could dismiss this generosity with a simple, "Oh, they're just using you to push their agenda," or even simpler, "People just like to talk about themselves." But I think there's a much deeper motivation, something that is at the heart of who we are as human beings: we recognize the importance of stories.
   Each of us holds an oceanful of stories, and we're often terrified to share them. Think of Forrest Gump sitting on his bench, telling his stories. In order to feel so free to share, the character had to be a simpleton, unaware of the social "norms" that keep us from telling a stranger our stories.
   By establishing that bond of trust between journalist and interviewee, for an hour or so we break those "norms". Our subjects are freed to tell their stories, and sometimes they will release for us the hurts, the passions, the joys - all the deepest emotions - that even their oldest friends don't understand.
   Perhaps it is the implicit contract between journalist and subject that gives them freedom: I, the journalist, place no demands on you. I'm simply here to guide you, with my questions, to tell your story the best way you can. I will listen, you will talk, and when it is done I will tell your story for you and finally someone else - many someone elses - will understand what makes you, you. Terrifying, yet exciting - and enormously appealing.
   I have always sought to be understood, and I think others have too. It's the cry of our hearts: listen, and hear what I have to say. Some people are actually willing to die for that right - you see it in suicide notes, in bomb threats, and sometimes, in a simple act of defiance.
   In 1990, the socialist republic of Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union. And in their capital city, Vilnius, the radio-television tower began broadcasting Lithuanian ideas, in the Lithuanian language, presented by native Lithuanians. And Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union, didn't like this.
   In the wee hours of the morning on January 13, 1991, Soviet tanks rolled into the city of Vilnius, with the intention of stopping the unsanctioned broadcasts. But a crowd of unarmed Lithuanians surrounded the tower, placing themselves in the soldiers' line of fire. The civilians were attacked with tear gas and machine guns. Thirteen people died that night, but the resistance forced the Soviet tanks to retreat.
   As a journalist, I find this incredibly humbling: to think that people would be willing to DIE for the right to hear their own stories, told in their own language, by their own people!
   And that act of self-sacrifice is remembered. Five years later, on January 13, 1996, I was walking down a cobblestone street in Siauliai, Lithuania, on my way to meet with the staff of the Siauliu Krastas, an independent Lithuanian-language newspaper started after the fall of Russian communism. On every flagpole, the yellow-red-green Lithuanian flag was flying at half-mast, in memory of those who died for the right to have their stories told.
   As a reporter, I feel I've been given a marvelous gift. Being a reporter lets me meet people and experience things most people never get the chance to. We are given the freedom to ask what others are afraid to, to open metaphorical windows and unlock metaphorical doors.
   I want to know how beer is made: a brewmaster will show me how. I want to know what it's like to be a dog-sledder, a bus driver, a travelling musician, a coffee shop owner: they'll tell me their stories.
   And in return for this gift, my job is to act as a translator, to turn the raw "stuff" of their lives into 12 inches of newsprint that will explain, educate, amuse and inform anyone who chooses to read it. I have been given a role that in many cultures is considered sacred: I am a storyteller, chronicler of today, making history for tomorrow. I am amazed, humbled and awed by this responsibility. I pray that I might do their stories justice, and treat those stories - and their givers - with the respect that they deserve.