How Reporting 101 Could Teach The World To Sing in Closer Harmony

Photo by Amy Ross on flickr

I majored in journalism because it was the Seventies. My mother had a radio show at WSOY in Decatur, IL. I thought AM radio was corny, but I was secretly proud of her. To fill an hour of empty air with nothing but a microphone seemed insanely brave.

Print journalism was safer. As a newspaper reporter, I’d have more control over what I “said” and an editor’s net could catch me if I was wrong. Plus, I liked to write.

Bernstein and Woodward had already become celebrities by exposing the rot under the Nixon administration’s veneer of innocence. A new magazine called Ms.was stirring things up by serving news to a feminist audience. As I packed my bags for Normal, IL, I imagined that a first-generation college co-ed could be successful at something outside teaching or nursing. Gratefully, and with many supporters, I graduated.

Although I didn’t stick with the newsroom but for a few short years, my journalism education benefitted me far beyond the job of reporter and editor. After many years and several different careers, I’ve learned that our ability and willingness to interact with one another as human beings is the most important life skill. We must learn to communicate with less suspicion, prejudice, rudeness, and rancor.

Civility now sounds rather antiquated. But society’s need for it is not. Our ability to interact with others as co-inhabitants of our world is at stake. In fact, about 70% of Americans think a lack of civility in public spaces is a major problem.

Instead of blaming our growing incivility on politics or lack of role modeling (both of which certainly play a part), I believe that our use of technology — especially in social media spaces — is the main driver.

Social media platforms invite and reward us to make assumptions about people we don’t know. And if we knew them, we might like or even love them.

No one in my journalism cohort could have imagined the extent to which media would expand beyond TV, newspapers and magazines. Advertisements were of course necessary to keep the publications I wrote for and ones I dreamed of writing for afloat. But the blurring of entertainment, advertising, news, features, and public relations? What are you smoking? Alternative facts? A mad dystopian nightmare.

Yet, marketing “pop” as a pop song that exploited our ethos had begun before the Watergate break in. The most famous and (up to then) innovative commercial — one that pushed us into the brave new world of soda equals social consciousness and world peace — actually happened in 1971.

The Washington Post, Second-Wave Feminism and my mother’s role modeling influenced my actions. But the Coke commercial is the ear worm that wriggled its way into my emotional brain. Whenever I think about making the world a better, saner, kinder, more enlightened place, it’s the song I hear.

I’d like to Teach the World a Reporting 101 Mindset

Reporting instructor Steve Pasternack was not one for feel-good jingles or pithy aphorisms. He was a serious, seasoned reporter both respected and moderately feared (after some of us cancelled his wake up call for an early conference event as a prank). He was from New Jersey, Jewish, direct and passionate about what constituted accurate and accessible reporting. I remember fragments of memories while sitting in his class, mostly behind a Royal or Remington at Illinois State University in 1978.

Photo by Ed Uthman on flickr

Fragment 1: Your writing is an artifact. It will be scrutinized and your assignments will bleed with corrections and critiques. Toughen up. It’s not personal.

Fragment 2: Inverted pyramid: State most important facts up front. Details come later. Don’t embellish to sound smart.

Fragment 3: Don’t assume anything. Ask. (Image of a cloudy blackboard, six letters divided by two vertical chalk lines)

ass | u | me

This word summed up the source of a journalist’s most common error. Taking steps to mitigate assumptions cleared the path to a more accurate, objective truth. Simple steps like asking sources to spell their names, double-checking “facts,” listening without interruption, probing without pushing, restating what they said, asking permission to contact them if you have more questions. And, of course, offering no opinion. A reporter does not judge.

My Coke-flavored-teach-the-world-to-sing wish is that everyone learn Reporting 101 life skills from someone like Dr. Pasternack. To sit at a metal desk with a manual typewriter at your fingertips, eyes squinting to decipher handwritten facts from opinions on a blackboard. To type a coherent and accurate story in 40 minutes. To shake off that red-stained artifact that you were sure deserved an 83 but is returned to you with a 57. A number that compels you to double-check your own name in the top-left corner.

Illusions of Knowledge, Comfort, and Being on the Right Side

USAF 1st Airman Devin Boyer

Today, supercomputers do our investigative work. We consume more than we research, think about, or discuss current events and their implications. Social media algorithms point us to folks like us who like what we like, have similar interests, and further fuel our dislike of “other” — those whose ideologies and lifestyles are dangerous, weird, even wrong.

Those models, created to make money, eerily predict our spending, what we will read, share, like and love more accurately than could our closest loved one. But an equally troubling phenomenon is our increasing tendency to stick to the stories that get shared and praised within our tribes. We report and repost narratives that reinforce the tribe’s ideology, thereby proving our allegiance and upping our likes and status.

Being drawn to folks who validate our ideas, experiences and opinions is understandably comforting and comfortable. Yet, if we only listen to those who agree with us, if we keep sharing the same memes, cover the same narratives over and over again with no passersby from other perspectives, what do we gain?

Not Assuming Anything

I’ve been doing work in the area of conflict for a few years. Whether it’s helping others have difficult conversations at work or facilitating opposing perspectives on community issues, not everyone wants to learn a more complex, nuanced story from different perspectives.

Those who resist more complete stories are not stupid or wrong. Like it or not, though, we are all constantly learning and adapting. Whether we want to or not.

One thing seems clear, yet frustrating: Often it’s the people who are least willing to have conversations outside their tribe who could benefit most. At a minimum, we need to be curious in order to talk about uncomfortable topics or to engage with someone who belongs to an “opposing” tribe. Some people are so certain they’re right, there’s no more room for curiosity.

If you remain curious and want to better understand political perspectives, Better Angels is devoted to reds and blues discussing beliefs without agenda. Better Angels began in December 2016, when 10 Trump supporters and 11 Clinton supporters gathered in South Lebanon, Ohio, to listen to one another, respectfully disagree and find common ground. Becoming a member is a good way to engage with others who are looking to learn, listen, develop curiosity and grow.

Here are five of my own tips, derived from Pasternack’s class and other skills acquired in later careers. The first three address communicating with others. The last two are reminders to be mindful of what we consume.

  1. Ask someone who differs in some way from your identities (age, gender expression, ethnicity, race, nationality, ability) to coffee or tea. Ask them about their experiences. Listen. Share something about yourself. That’s it.

A conversation is not a debate. You can’t listen and judge at the same time.

2. Remember that we all have different identities but we aren’t solely defined by them. Because I was born female, white and within the baby boomer generation doesn’t mean I dress, vote, or eat like other 55+ white women. I like this paradox:

Group identity matters but it never defines any individual.

3. When you talk with someone who is different from you, what do you expect?

We tend to find what we set out to judge.

4. Reduce your social media use. Avoid or block content created to produce fear and polarize us based on group identities.

You are not what you consume, but you can become consumed by it.

5. Read books, newspapers and magazines that give longer treatment to issues and people who are trying to make the world a more positive place. Listen to podcasts featuring people who have done work to add knowledge, not simply their opinions, to issues you care about.

Although politics is important, reacting to sound bites and memes does little but rile us.

We put stories together in our heads to make sense of a very complex world. Our right and left brains work in tandem to create the story — where the pieces seem to fit best based on our experiences, beliefs, biases, hopes and fears.

We assume the pieces fit because we only have our own lens of experience through which to see. As Anais Nin said,

We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.

In Memoriam

Dr. Steve Pasternack died in 2004. He was full professor at New Mexico State University from 1983 until his death in 2004, and he served as journalism department head there for eight years. Dr. Pasternack also taught and conducted workshops for many U.S. government agencies, including the Fulbright program, Voice of America and the U.S. State Department in 17 countries, including Latvia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Albania, Mali and Ethiopia.

His goal was to increase the level of professionalism in journalism in countries emerging from authoritarian rule or which had suffered from violence in the past, according to friend and colleague Dr. Nathan Brooks. In 2000 in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda that claimed nearly a million lives, Pasternack helped establish a journalism program at the National University of Rwanda during his first extended stay.

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