Asking the Tough Question: Am I Cut Out to be a Journalist?

A question and answer section in Salon raised serious issues on what it takes to be a journalist, especially those in graduate school for the trade who suffer from anxieties like asking the tough questions.

In a letter to Cary Tennis, Shrivling Scribbler wrote:

Dear Cary,

I'm a journalism grad student at a pretty good j-school, but I feel more and more like I've made a huge mistake.

The thing is, I'm shy. Or rather, I'm deeply afraid of people -- of talking to them, of asking them nosy questions about their lives. Left to my own devices, I'd stay in my room, do nothing and never go out.

And the trouble is, cowardice like this breeds laziness. My fear of talking to people leads to formulaic writing, where I just call people until I have enough usable quotes and don't dig deeper for the heart of the story. It's production-line stuff.

The crazy, sad part is that I get good grades at school.

Having been fearful on more than one occasion, I can see where fear leads to laziness. The reporter rather than facing the story ignores it and hopes it goes away, but the only thing that arrives on the computer screen is boring, poorly thoughtout copy.

Cary Tennis empathized with the writer and had this advice:

Having persisted and survived with my fears and eccentricities intact, I have some observations.

It is wonderful to work in the field of journalism, and in that field there are many kinds of jobs. Some journalism jobs require you to ask uncomfortable questions of seemingly decent people, questions whose implication is that you do not believe or trust the person you are talking to. You must take a somewhat adversarial role simply to get the story. You must cross certain boundaries that in much of civic and cultural life we do not cross.

Some people find this easy to do. Perhaps their belief in the importance of what they are doing is so powerful that it mutes their doubts and scruples. Perhaps to them it is a game in which each side has volunteered, in which each party is equally knowing. To be sure, the discomfort of conducting interviews lies along a continuum -- no one, I would assume, is completely comfortable asking certain questions of certain people, nor should any interview be completely comfortable.

The writer's query is important when deciding if this is the right path, however hardcore investigative journalism isn't the only world, and graduate school isn't always the answer either (Sorry, NYU staff).

But living in a shell won't work either, and overcoming those anxieties are essential for survival in any profession, as the tough question will merely manifest itself in something else. For me, journalism is way for many to find truth, inside themselves as well as the world they are rendering.

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