Newswriting 101

I was a college sophomore when I took Newswriting 101.

Our professor—I’ll call him Mr. C—was old and pale and grizzled from years of working the beats as a newspaper reporter. He liked to wear khaki pants belted around his chest and red plaid shirts that matched the distressing spray of broken capillaries on his face. He spoke to us in a nasally voice so filled with irritation that it was often hard to understand what he was saying.

We found out soon enough. “You guys are idiots.” In fairness, we were.

The class worked like this:

He’d give us a make-believe event—a fire broke out in an apartment building around 8 p.m., two people injured, one cat missing (and a host of other facts)—and then we’d get 20 minutes to put together a news story following the holy dictates of the who, what, when, where, and why news pyramid. While we sweated and scribbled, erased and squirmed, he’d stand—hunched and troll-like—at the front of the room, leafing through The Denver Post, muttering his dissatisfaction. Then one by one, we’d go to the podium and present our work to him.

He had a big red Sharpie and would swipe it across the page, circling this, slashing through that, shaking his head. In his nasally voice, he’d admonish us. Why did you put the why before the what? Where is the where in the lede? How did you miss all the pertinent facts and only talk about the secondary ones? (All of this punctuated by a high-pitched laugh that told us our ineptitude was making him insane). And worst and most damnable of all, why did you use that word? Couldn’t you see that you were introducing bias?!?

So back to our desks we’d go to sweat and scribble some more, and this process would repeat itself until we had produced a competent story. None of us was spared the red Sharpie. All of us had to make at least two trips to the podium, and for many, three or four trips, before our work was accepted.

I got a B in that class. For an A student, it was the end of the world as I knew it. But since no one else got an A, I quickly got over the insult. I had to.

Because as it turns out, I didn’t know anything at all. None of us did. The simple fact was that Newswriting was hard, the hardest of all the core classes in my major, the hardest because teaching the basic principles upon which journalism was built is like teaching a toddler to walk. We staggered around drunkenly until we got the hang of it, which took weeks and sometimes even months, and even then we’d occasionally crash into a wall or stumble down the stairs. Funny how much we take the basics for granted. Funny how above it all we think we are.

I bet you’re guessing what I’m going to say next:

That crotchety, curmudgeonly Mr. C taught me everything I know and I owe all my successes to him.

The truth, of course, is a little less tidy. The truth is that he frustrated me. He didn’t want to be there, that was obvious. He hated teaching with every breath in his body. Teaching for him was nothing more than a way to make a living in his post-newspaper-reporter twilight years and the minute he got home every evening, he probably poured a tall whiskey and sniveled over some mangy cat in his lap and reminisced about the good ol’ days when he and his compadres cracked open that bank robbery story. His disdain for us—a bunch of know-it-all kids barely out of our teens, thinking we were going to save the world—was palpable.

But at the end of the long, weary day, no matter how little regard he had for us, he still tried to do his job right. Which meant teaching us how to be responsible journalists. Which meant imparting something sacred to us that he feared was going to be lost: the art of thorough reporting, free of emotional bias, with “just the facts.”

Here’s where I grudgingly tip my hat to Mr. C.

As far as I’m concerned, he was right: that sacredness is lost. And though he was one of my least favorite professors and I do not look back on his red Sharpie or his plaid shirts with fond memories, I do think about him on the rare occurrence when I skim a newspaper article or click through the nightly news.

Mr. C’s ideals of journalism are nearly impossible to find in practice anymore, though there are some people making a real and valiant effort. And of course this is not the first period in history when the rabid “reporting” of news with divisive effect as the goal has become the status quo, although the speed of rabid reporting happens faster than ever before as news organizations clamor to dish the details first, whether those details have actually been verified or not. It’s not the first time in history where editorializing is mistaken as reporting or even its intellectual cousin—investigative journalism—and is revered above all else. Everyone’s a pundit; everyone is a narcissist with an opinion that must be shared.

But it may be the first time in history when “bias” is no longer an alarm bell.

Ah, what the hell do I know, anyway? I’ve never earned a living as a reporter. I’ve never had to see what reporters are up against, or feel first-hand the sordid business of news. And it’s been a long time since I was in journalism school, so I don’t even know what they teach the kids anymore. For all I know, there are a hundred incarnations of Mr. C out there, trying to whip students into shape.

But despite teachers like him who held aloft the candles of Standards and Idealism, you can always count on the great fuel of human emotion to spin out the siren song of the news story and crash us all on the rocks. As long as there is something to be afraid of, outraged about, or titillated by, human beings will sell their souls to the media in the name of “wanting to stay informed”…and then in the very same breath call the media the devil.

On the other hand, a lot of people are smart enough to know what’s really going on. They know about the amygdala and Edward Bernays. They know what independence truly is.

I propose this:

If you want a good story, go write it yourself—not for the consumption of others, but for the betterment of your own understanding. Put yourself in the middle of the action, touch the wall, look into someone’s eyes, walk the street, swim the river, sit down with the tribe. Try not to use the word “victim” for one whole day. Try to understand what the color of the pond means, what the houses without roofs imply, what the solar panels are capturing. Mourn the loved one, listen to the stories, dance with the children, eat the food, drink and be merry. Go observe war if you have to, but don’t upset your family needlessly. While you’re at it, be curious, be moved, be angry—but not reactive. Be challenged, and then be open to changing your mind.

Your own experience is all you need. When you can derive from direct, personal experience, you’re less likely to be manipulated. You won’t need someone else to tell you what’s real or what isn’t, what’s important or not. You won’t hungrily consume approved information in all its many guises. You won’t be a consumer at all. You won’t let yourself be used.

I realize this all sounds lofty. It is. I have no plans to observe war myself; I don’t have the means to travel the globe for a year. But I think you get the point, which is that the stories out there are just stories until you live them yourself. This means something. It means perception is in the eye of the beholder. It means there are a lot more shades of gray than there are black and white. It means there are a lot more professionals earning a paycheck from your unchecked emotions and not your actual knowledge of events.

But we also know this: that rational humans don’t really exist, not in the way we’d like to believe. It’s why the earning of profit from our primary anxieties is too tempting. It’s why bias is ubiquitous. So we have to go out in the field. We have to start traveling. We have to do our own information-gathering and write our own stories, as much as we can.

Here’s one for the class: Go visit a farm. Or a glacier. Or the border—our border, anyone’s border. How about a place of worship you know nothing about. Another country is a given. A country you’ve never heard of is even better. Take part in someone’s most sacred ritual and see what it brings up for you. Read the books and lengthy investigations of those who have gone before you and done the same thing with the same purity of intention. At the very least, have a gathering with your Republican and Democrat friends and make a rule that you will not talk politics, but instead will find out something about them you never knew before. Dive deep.

Afraid of what you’ll uncover? I know, me too. Who would we be without our tightly held, partisan-approved, socially sanctioned ideas? We’ll uncover anyway. We’ll write about what we saw and what we learned.

Here’s the part where I go soft:

Mr. C, wherever you are, don’t give up hope. Intelligent life still walks on this earth and not all Newswriting students are idiots (OK, well even if they are, they at least mean well). I’m certain you were a good reporter in your day. I’m sure you took your job seriously and were rewarded for it. I think they still try to use the news pyramid somewhere, so all is not lost. Above all, you believed in the sanctity and integrity of news-gathering as both a duty to the public and a civil right, and I thank you for that. Wow, am I thanking you for something?

I’m sure you understand, though, that it’s up to us now. You taught me that. It’s up to me to be a responsible journalist.