Questions for the Society of Professional Journalists’ national president often come hard and fast. They are in e-mail and on voicemail. They are in letters sent to my
office. They are posted on my blog. And they fill conference rooms as I stand at lecterns across the nation.
During the past year, questions from the public have focused on lapses in journalism ethics. Journalism students have wanted career advice. Working journalists have inquired more about the future of journalism as it pertains to business decisions. SPJ members want to know how to improve and expand our nearly century-old journalism-advocacy organization.
As you read my answers to some of the year’s most frequently asked questions, please note three things: I certainly don’t have all the answers. I am under no delusion that all SPJ members would agree with me. And everyone — even the man from Idaho who sent a handwritten letter detailing years of “bias” he wants me to “correct for once and for all” — has received a response.
(From random grade-schoolers in seven states): How much money do you make?
Well, boys and girls, everyone should enter journalism because they want people to have good information to make smart decisions. People shouldn’t be journalists if they want to make big bucks.
Why can’t SPJ do (fill in the blank here)?
Thanks for your note. Your suggestion is a great one, and something I bet SPJ could do easily with a little help from you. How would you like to get started?
Should I go to graduate school or get a job?
If you have an undergraduate degree in journalism, by all means consider getting a graduate degree in something — anything — else. For what it’s worth, a journalism prof once told me that grad school would have been “delaying the inevitable.” I got a job instead — and am so glad I did.
What do you think of the controversy surrounding Don Imus?
Mr. Imus said something incredibly stupid and incredibly offensive. It’s hard to come up with enough ways to criticize his comment. However, he is a shock jock. He is not a journalist, and never has claimed to be, so I haven’t expected much in the way of journalism ethics out of him.
But the steady of stream of journalists who appeared on his show? They’re a different story entirely. And if they’re anything like Newsweek staff writer Evan Thomas, they’re going to be far more careful in the future to “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”
Thomas, a regular guest on Imus’ show, told the magazine he sometimes wondered if Imus went too far.
“But I rationalized my appearances by pointing to other prominent journalists and politicians who did it,” he said. “I was eager to sell books, and I liked being in the in crowd.”
If only more journalists were as honest and humble.
Why did you choose a career in journalism?
It’s never the same day twice. I can ask just about anyone just about anything. Even though I don’t feel as if this is true every day, I’m performing a public service in the grand scheme of things.
I’m surrounded by intelligent, witty, humorous, biting, curious and often loudmouthed and irreverent colleagues. I’m surrounded by colleagues who are also highly sensitive, compassionate and caring.
I am honored and privileged to be invited into people’s lives — and, when appropriate, to barge in on them. I love the idea that some small thing I have done has made someone else’s life easier. I also love being paid to be informed.
What are the defining characteristics of a great journalist?
l Unrelenting skepticism, particularly of oneself.
l Unrelenting desire to know the truth.
l A commitment to treat everyone with dignity and respect that is recognized by everyone with whom the journalist comes in contact.
l A commitment to conduct journalism consistent with SPJ’s ethics code.
l The ability to talk to anyone about anything.
l The ability to love the trade despite the pay.
l The ability to write well — well as in Mervin Block, Paul Salopek, Anna Quindlen and Gary Smith well; well as in David Halberstam well — because amazing journalism, regardless of medium, is almost always based on great writing.
l The ability to report even better than you write. You can’t do that great writing unless you’ve done great reporting.