A friend asked me recently what it’s like to be a reporter.
Was she concerned or just curious? I didn’t know, but I tried to answer her question.
“No, no!” she said, interrupting me. “I mean … what it’s like to be a reporter now?”
I get it.
In these worrisome times of “real” news versus “fake” news, she wondered what it feels like to be in “the crooked media.”
My honorable and essential profession is on a virtual most-wanted poster. It’s being broad-brush vilified by the president of the United States and others.
Not fair. As someone who’s spent most of her adult life trying to do it right, “now” is painful, disheartening and infuriating. And very scary, in terms of everybody’s First Amendment rights and a reporter’s responsibility to the community he or she serves.
But the unfair attacks on my big-time peers also get my little-town back up. They will not stop a free press!
For my part, I will continue doing what I do, as well as I can, to keep my readers informed. If “doing it right” includes getting in somebody’s face or making someone mad, as it often does, then so be it.
I’ve been a North Coast journalist for more than two dozen years. My beat includes all the usual governmental news fodder plus dozens of volunteer and public service groups; bustling tourism, arts and performing arts colonies; and a couple of villages full of active people who stand ready and willing to speak their minds and defend the causes that are dear to them.
It can be a handful, believe me.
Herding cats, anyone?
But I’m also a columnist. I’ve written regular opinion pieces for The Cambrian and The Tribune since 1981.
Reporter, columnist. What’s the difference?
Usually, columnists can write about any topic that strikes their fancy, and their work often includes their opinions on those topics.
Reporters, however, must keep their personal beliefs out of their stories, and the boundaries of their beats help define what can and cannot be a topic in those reports.
For those of us who do both, it can be a very fine line.
So, I don’t align myself with any candidate or cause or write opinion columns about topics on my beat. Period. That would muddy the bias waters, and I won’t do that.
Yes, maintaining public silence on certain issues can be hugely frustrating. It certainly is now with all the political upheaval in our country. Of course I have opinions! But no, I won’t share them, no matter how tempting it is to post a snappy comeback on Facebook, or confront someone who, while definitely entitled to state an opinion, isn’t entitled to spread misinformation or lies.
That can be a fine line, too.
What’s it like to be a reporter?
Jerry Bunin, my longtime friend and a Tribune reporter/columnist from 1991 to 2002, understood well the random, whimsical nature of our dual jobs.
There was a cartoon pinned to the wall of Jerry’s cubbyhole at The Tribune. As he described it in a column, the cartoon “shows what I do for a living. The caption is ‘HOW REPORTERS START THEIR DAY AT WORK.’
“It shows a bunch of not-so-nattily dressed scruffians standing under a harsh light around a sparse desk while one of them tosses a dart at a board labeled, ‘TODAY I AM AN EXPERT IN. …’
“The dart could land in anything from liposuction, bondage and oboe to oil, vinegar, M&Ms, septic tanks, fusion and county fairs.”
Other categories on the board included politics, economy, car repair, health care, television, aerospace, bioengineering, foreign affairs, sports, stocks, explosives, computers, plumbing, food, cartoons and world peace. Yeah, the list is far from complete.
And we usually have only a matter of hours — or even minutes — in which to become “expert” before the deadline snatches our nonbiased story away to be printed and shared.
Welcome to our world.
What’s it like to be a community reporter these days? As Jerry said in a recent Facebook chat, “We live in frightening times, indeed. Journalists are on the front lines. … However, being courageous, honest, fair and standing up for what is right is never wrong.”
I’m feeling all the feels here. My job is challenging. Confusing. Satisfying, frustrating, intriguing. Exhausting, scary and exciting. Economically bleak. Fascinating.
And most of the time, as Jerry said in his column? My job is fun.
What I do
The Mirriam-Webster online dictionary at www.merriam-webster.com includes the following definitions:
▪ Reporter, “one that reports … a person employed by a newspaper, magazine or television company to gather and report news” and “a person who broadcasts news.”
▪ Journalist, “a person engaged in journalism, especially, a writer or editor for a news medium; a writer who aims at a mass audience.”
▪ Columnist, “one who writes a newspaper or magazine column,” which is itself defined as “one in a usually regular series of newspaper or magazine articles.”