You Lose A Bit Of Humanity: 5 WTF Realities Of Journalism
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Journalism is an industry that is still trying to work out how to stop the internet from taking all its money away, like senior citizens desperately refreshing their emails because the Nigerian prince hasn't got back to them yet. However, this didn't stop more than 14,000 people in America from getting journalism degrees in 2015, which roughly translates into 13,000 applications to Starbucks. And for those people, like me, who actually managed to get into the field, it's often revealed to be a much stranger career path than you ever could've imagined. For example ...
You Will Date Journalists, And The Results Will Be Publicly Weird
As in any profession, you will end up spending most of your day around people who do a similar job to you. This means you will probably end up dating one or two of them, maybe even at the same time if you exist in an Aaron Sorkin screenplay. But while every other failed relationship I've had ended with one party scattering the other's belongings all over the sidewalk and burning them in an unholy effigy to the Great Old Ones, a relationship between two journalists has the potential to get uniquely weird when it ends. The kind of weird that happens when you've been dating someone with a national audience and absolutely no reason to pretend they like you anymore.
This hadn't occurred to me until an ex-girlfriend wrote a piece about me in the UK Cosmopolitan after I got engaged to my now-wife. Oh sure, the article doesn't name me, and is careful to suggest that it is about multiple men in her past. Which, fine, maybe it is, but we were together for the longer part of a decade, and there wasn't loads of time between us breaking up and the column being published for her to meaningfully spend time with several people who then went and got engaged to someone else ... unless she has the absolute shittiest luck or is secretly a very industrious cupid.
I asked my wife to marry me in October 2015, and my ex's article came out two months later, complete with self-deprecating complements that all sounded a lot like they're about me and my wife. It would be easier to miss Jim Carrey breakdancing while on fire than the references in that piece.
My wife was the first to see the article as she was flicking through magazines at a hair salon, because sometimes life really does work like a sitcom trope -- which is also why I can't wait to tell her that she's actually been married to my evil twin brother this whole time. And yes, I absolutely get the irony of me now writing about an ex-girlfriend in an article. All journalists are weird, including me.
You See Everything Through The Eyes Of Your Specialization
All the journalists I know, both those who made it a successful career and those who survived on bugs in the wilderness, have the same thing in common: They specialized. And years of working out what the news will mean to the specific audience you write for does something insane to the way you see the world. Everything gets run through the filter of your specialization, which in my case this was finance.
Take Japan's earthquake, tidal wave, and nuclear disaster in 2011. In case you need a recap, a 40-foot high wall of water came smashing through parts of the country, with the resulting chaos putting 100,000 people out of homes and killing more than 16,000. Wow, that got heavy. That moment of unimaginable human suffering was also when I had one of the biggest revelations about being a journalist. Every part of my professional training taught me to question what it would mean for the specific part of the financial markets I was covering at the time. That's ... not a healthy thought process.
But getting into that seemingly heartless mindset is not only important; it's essential for your career. At major newswires, the information is so important to readers that journalists can be judged on how many seconds they beat their rivals by. This means you must have a deeply ingrained understanding of what's important to your readers and what isn't.
Still, it doesn't stop you from feeling like an asshole when some tragic event happens and your first thought is about what it will do to bond prices. There's no sugarcoating it, a little part of your humanity is diminished when you find yourself instantly considering what impact tragedies will have on the beat you cover, rather than the lives of those devastated. It's like you're the shittiest ever Pavlovian dog.
But that's the reality of the job. I'm a finance writer. My mind always has to be in finance mode, or I don't get paid.
You Walk A Fine Line Between Celebration And Ruin
Journalists always know more about a story than they can write. Weirdly enough, in many cases, it's juicy stuff that an audience absolutely would want to read about, but we don't put it in the article. It sounds counterproductive, doesn't it? There are a bunch of reasons for this. These factoids might not have quite enough evidence to be able to prove in court, or maybe the writer has agreed not to use the info because the source they got it from is so good that they hope to get even better stuff from them at some point in the future. It's a constant process. "How much can I print? Can I definitely prove it? Is the story worth the potential outrage from sources?"
If you get this balance right, it can be one of the most rewarding parts of the job. A few years back, a company that is nearing Enron levels of sketchy in the way it moves money among its subsidiaries sent a very formal-sounding letter from their legal department to my then-editor to complain about a story that I was involved in which called them out on their financial wizardry bullshit. The place I was writing for put truth and accuracy in reporting above everything else -- which is unfortunately more than can be said for some UK publications, which have a habit of putting blatant racism and occasional Nazi-inspired headlines above everything else. This meant that the assertions made in my story, like every story, were checked and double-checked before hitting "publish." So when the fancy note came in with its posh letterhead and insinuations of legal action if we didn't play nice, there was only one thing we could possibly do: The other reporter on the story printed and framed it.
Of course, there are plenty of examples of what happens when a journalist gets it wrong. Remember when Rolling Stone wrote and deleted an article about the University of Virginia called "A Rape On Campus," which accused an admin there of being between Darth Vader and ISIS on the moral scale? Turns out the accusations weren't true, and naming someone as being complicit in covering up a vicious gang rape is really the sort of thing you have to make sure is true before you publish it.
Remember, this wasn't some hack we're talking about. That Rolling Stone author was an experienced reporter. Massive screw-ups like this are why most journalists regularly have a nagging worry that they've been led down a similar path or that they've missed something. So they give every detail microscopic attention. The other option is being sued for $2 million, while your magazine is hit with a $1 million fine because you forgot to follow some simple rules of reporting.
Sources Teach You A Funny Thing About Human Nature
Imagine you're a football coach and you've got a set of killer plays that you know are going to help you win big. Now imagine you call up a journalist and tell them, in highly specific detail, every single one of those plays. Now imagine the slapstick boing sound that will play when the camera pans onto you as your team limps home after a crushing defeat.
If you become a journalist, chances are you won't have to imagine a situation like that, because some sources fall head over tits to be that coach.
One time, a country in the Middle East was looking to raise billions of dollars. The whole way this works is through semi-secrecy. Until the last possible moment, no borrower country wants to let the people lending it money know exactly how much it wants, or how much it can afford to pay, or exactly when it will try to raise the money, because if it does, then the potential lenders will twist the screws to make sure they can get as big a return as possible.
This didn't stop one government official telling me, on condition of personal anonymity but well aware I had a duty to report what he said, exactly all of these details in the week before he was planning on asking for a huge amount of money. The financial markets reacted accordingly when the story was published, and the country had to cough up a few hundred thousand dollars extra each time it pays interest until the debt is gone.
In my old life as a general news reporter, I had a property developer tell me that he was trying to get planning permission to build a new bar in the middle of a residential district. People generally don't want to put their kids to sleep while listening to thumping bass and drunks puking in the parking lot, so when the story broke, they complained. A lot. As a result, the bar never happened. "I didn't think you were going to publish it!" the developer shouted down the phone at me -- having called me a day earlier, completely out of the blue and having never met me before, and having explicitly been told I would publish what he said.
The weird lesson you pretty much expect about humanity is that people love attention and telling juicy gossip. But after becoming a journalist, you know it for a fact. What you don't expect is that high-ranking CEOs and politicians are as guilty of it (if not moreso) than the average citizen. You expect them to be tight-lipped because their jobs, companies, and countries depend on a whole lot of information never making it to the public eye. But when it all boils down, it doesn't matter if the person you're speaking to is under a "don't say a goddamn word" contract; if something interesting happens, they have to tell someone.
You Have To Become An Immediate Expert In Anything
Just because you have a specialty doesn't mean you know absolutely everything there is to know about it, because I think that by that stage, journalists will have assumed their final form and become actual computers. Until the day of enlightenment promised to all reporters comes, journalists will do what everyone else does when they need to quickly brush up on something: They Google it.
This can take you to some odd places. As a rookie reporter, I got a call about a conference on the Nigerian gas and oil market that was happening right goddamn then. I shot over there, Googling everything I could about this market which I knew very little about. This was not enough to appease the ancient gods of journalism, though, who saw me trying to get a grip on a massive topic in a very short time span, and promptly gave me the finger. It turned out that I had misheard the heavily Nigerian-accented voice of the person who invited me on the phone, and the conference wasn't about gas and oil at all. It was actually about the Nigerian diaspora -- people who had moved away from the country.
Astute readers might notice that this has absolutely fuck all to do with finance, and I was now in my third hour out of the office in an early reporting job where I was desperate to impress my editor. But thanks to being an almost full-time denizen of the internet, my googling had given me enough information that I was able to ask one or two vaguely related, smart-sounding questions. In short, I blagged it. You need to get used to these sorts of blags, because they come up out of nowhere.
Sometimes, of course, this goes spectacularly badly, like when this junior reporter was certain that John Cusack was in American Beauty, even after he repeatedly told her that he wasn't. That video is a beautiful slow-motion car wreck. I wonder how I can relate it to finance?
Mike's Twitter is maybe the only place on the internet where dick jokes and finance collide.
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