I thought today I would dig a bit deeper into my own experience as a journalist and what it taught me – about writing, about humanity, about the media, and about the way we choose to show up in the world.
I lived overseas for much of my twenties before coming home to complete a master’s degree. At the end of it, I had no idea what to do. I was very close to enrolling in a PhD, but chose instead to go to journalism school, because I wasn’t sure what other option I had, and it seemed kind of cool. I need to “settle down” and choose a career, I thought. Might as well be something to do with words.
Looking back, I don’t think I ever enjoyed the course. I found it stressful and cut-throat, and I didn’t like the pressure of compulsory writing, let alone writing to deadline. I remember the head of school standing at the front of the class and telling us that journalism was possibly the most exciting profession anyone could choose. It didn’t resonate.
And yet, I excelled. I was a good writer, a good interviewer. I asked insightful, insistent questions. I could distil a complicated issue down into a clear, succinct story. I was fast. I was loud and charismatic (and, might I add, a bit of an arsehole). My shorthand was a thing of beauty. I graduated top of my class. But although one may be good at something, it doesn’t mean it’s right for them, and unless skill and talent are commensurate with passion and happiness, top marks mean nothing.
I secured a job as a sole-charge journalist at a small radio station in a smallish town. I had been posted there on the work experience section of the course, and radio, with its combination of writing and performance, seemed the perfect match for me.
The hours, however, were brutal. I was thrown in the deep end with no support. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no fun at all. New journos need to do their time in the provinces, I was told. You don’t land the big jobs immediately.
But they didn’t count on my determination. Within six months I was in talks with IRN/The Radio Network in Auckland, pushing for a position. They flew me to Auckland and a few weeks later I was in a national newsroom that provided news to a number of well-known radio stations throughout New Zealand, including Newstalk ZB.
I worked on some major stories – APEC ’99, the Tairua prison escapees, Y2K (it was a fizzer). I interviewed Helen Clark, Winston Peters, business leaders from all sectors. I did live crosses with Paul Holmes. I was promoted to News Director for a few shifts (albeit the 4am ones), so had control of the news feed and was in charge of managing the journos and the assignments on my shift. I made the ever-evolving, often controversial calls on what stories we led with.
Dreadful working conditions and the breathtaking misogyny in my workplace aside, here’s what I observed about journalists and journalism during my time there.
In radio, the deadlines were regular and relentless. The pressure to produce stories and file them 20 minutes before the top of the hour, every hour, was constant. And then there was the half-hour bulletins, and other deadlines squeezed in between the major ones, for other syndicated radio stations that needed constant news fodder.
Journalists tended to prize speed above all else, simply because they had to. If you didn’t manage to get an interviewee on the phone by 15 past the hour, you were really in the shit, because you would have no time to put your story together. And the interview itself was inevitably rushed. You asked questions simply to elicit the soundbite you wanted. And the “talent”, particularly politicians, knew this, and they would give it. It was a game in which everyone was complicit. Sometimes it was enough, and justified. But often it meant nuanced, complex issues were reduced to nothing more than bulletin fillers.
We were expected to tell the same story over and over, but each time with a new angle, simply so each bulletin would sound fresh. Sometimes this just meant changing word order or reorganising sentences. Often it meant the new angle was bred out of pressured necessity rather than careful thought, balance, objectivity, and responsibility.
As time went on I started to notice things about myself and my colleagues – or perhaps I am only fully cognizant of these things now, in retrospect.
One: as a journalist, you tend to develop a kind of tunnel vision. What matters is the story. You are intent on getting the right interview in the quickest time, getting the right quote, getting the story to the sub, beating the other networks. You’re intent on beating every other journo to the mark in a press conference, because you need to deliver for your network/paper/media outfit, and the minute you slack off, the competition gets the scoop. And the scoop is God.
Two: And here’s where it gets more dangerous than inaccuracy and shallow reporting: people come second. You say you care, and to be fair, you probably do, but you’re firmly in the “get the story at all costs” zone, and it’s so very hard to extricate yourself. So if you’re asked to get the grieving mother on the phone, you do it, and somehow you find a way to interpret that excruciating moment as the noble pursuit of truth. You learn to switch off, to a lesser or greater extent, to the pain and humanity you are paid to report on – or at least you start to view it as great story material. “If it bleeds, it leads.” You chuckle about this common media mantra. You don’t stop long enough to consider whether you want to be the sort of person who chuckles about these things.
Three: you begin to aggrandize your role and your profession. Your noble duty, you tell yourself, is to report and to hold to account and to be the voice of the nation, and particularly if you’re on radio or even more so, on TV, this is highlighted, because you become a public figure as much as a journalist – and truth be told, you quite like it. And you start to like it more and more. And as your sense of self-importance increases, your sensitivity to the “normal” world wherein people live their messy, human lives is diluted, because you’re outside it looking in – the omniscient narrator – and thus you feel entitled to ask your questions in the name of “public interest”, no matter how that impacts on other humans.
Guess what? I left. After little more than a year. This doesn’t mean I was more enlightened or virtuous than anyone else in that newsroom. I was just burnt out and unhappy and disillusioned, and I wanted to do something that made me feel fulfilled and good about myself. I started with Auckland City Mission as a PR and fundraising executive. Best early career move I ever made.
Now, in 2021, I can see how things have changed in journalism, but also how they have stayed exactly the same. Social media has multiplied the pressure to churn out endless information, endless bulletins. Profit-driven KPIs have turned headlines and the stories beneath them into money-making clickbait. Young and pretty is prized above age and experience. People want fast, they want easy to digest. Dumbed-down is the norm. Reporting has become entertainment. Print journalism is now, thanks to the internet, just as ephemeral and pressured as radio was in my day, demanding constant fresh headlines and new takes to stay ahead of the game. Poor research and a lack of balance abound, exacerbated by a turnover of information so rapid that our powers of discernment and analysis and retention are tested like never before.
The age of social media is irrevocably damaging us. Journalism is just one casualty. The way we tell our stories and feed people with information on the communities within which they live and the wider world around them is broken. Add to this the cult of misinformation, and we’re in trouble. Real trouble.
I need to stress that there are good journalists, excellent journalists – and some excellent media platforms and organisations – doing important work, and quite frankly, God knows how they do it, because the odds are against them. But we need them.
What are the rest of us to do?
All I can offer right now is what I wrote in my earlier post, Journalism in a Pandemic:
I would add to this: Consumers, be mindful of what you consume. Analyse. Query. Question. Pause before clicking. Pause again before sharing.
Journalists still have a vital role to play. We have to help them be better – we have to demand that they do better – by refusing to mindlessly consume what does not serve us, and what erodes our humanity, clickbait headline by clickbait headline.