2005 Scholarship Luncheon; Keynote Address by David Schlesinger, Reuters
January 28, 2005
Sometimes I wonder why we bother.
People today aren’t reading the news or watching the news. And when they do, they often don’t believe it.
Blogs compete with professionals and sometimes it’s hard to say who is doing the better job.
Free sources of information battle it out with journals that try to get people to pay for content, and sometimes it’s hard to tell what content is actually worth.
Information and fact often seem subordinate to entertainment, and, you know, sometimes I just want to be entertained too.
Sometimes I wonder.
I wonder where the readers are going. What’s the point of the enterprise if only about 63 percent of people polled by the Pew Center in 2002 admitted to reading a newspaper regularly, down from 75 percent a decade before.
Sometimes I really wonder why we bother.
Of those who admitted to reading a paper, fewer than 60 percent rated the daily newspaper they were most familiar with as believable. And what a tumble that’s been since 1985, when 80 percent believed what they read.
The fact that I began my journalism career in 1986 may or may not be related to this trend.
Sometimes you even have to wonder if the game is worth the pain. What a dreadful year 2004 was for journalists’ safety.
Fifty-six colleagues were killed in a year, making it the worst year for journalists’ deaths in a decade, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Most of those killed were “local staff” and not glamorous foreign correspondents. They were working in their own countries, trying to bring the truth to their own people and to the world.
Many of those killed were stringers, working on contract or for piece rates, often without full benefits, often, perhaps, with an unfortunate financial incentive to take an extra risk.
As you, our scholarship winners, start your careers, you’re sure to work with local reporters wherever you end up. It’s so important to respect them, understand the conditions under which they work and ensure that you give proper credit to their journalism.
As you, our scholarship winners, start your careers, you’re almost certain to start out as a stringer yourself, and some of you may spend a career as a freelance. It’s so important to remember that making your name in the business is not worth losing your life in an accident. Don’t overstretch; don’t cut corners. There’ll always be another story, if you play it right. For my company, Reuters, we’ve had a particularly dreadful time in Iraq. We’ve lost three colleagues in horrible encounters with US troops during this conflict. One cameraman was killed when a tank fired on the Palestine Hotel, where seemingly all the world, but not the tank commander, knew the world’s journalists were gathered. One cameraman was killed because a US soldier apparently thought his camera was a grenade launcher. One cameraman was killed because he was filming “with the bad guys."
Well, we know that a cameraman isn’t a sniper. And we know that a camera isn’t a grenade launcher. And we know that good reporting means reporting all sides of a conflict and not getting sucked into labels like “us” and “them”, “good guys” or “bad guys”. We need governments and armies to understand this too. All of us in the business have an obligation to work to minimize the chances of horrible accidents happening again. All of us need to help educate, inform and lobby to ensure that the killing of a journalist doing his or her job professionally and honorably can never be considered “justified”. It’s a dangerous profession, a frustrating profession. A profession where the voice of truth and objective fact may just not be listened to. And it’s a profession where it has seemed really hard these past four years just to get a chance to practice it.
Oh those heady days around the Millennium when Content was “King”! Oh those heady days when we couldn’t hire reporters fast enough or when the reporters we did hire seemed able to walk off and routinely double their salaries at a dot com!
Well it hasn’t been like that for a while, alas.
It’s been a time of strictures and layoffs, of good people leaving the profession…or being pushed out.
I’m sure for you, starting out, the prospect of getting a permanent gig somewhere seems somewhat north of daunting.
So maybe you wonder why you should bother?
Maybe you wonder why you should struggle to get on a ladder that seems to have some rungs missing?
Maybe you even wonder about joining a profession in order to travel to report what you really see and experience when recently it transpired that Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley tried – and for a while succeeded – in building careers by writing what they hadn’t seen.
Maybe you wonder why you should bother.
Well, actually I think you should bother. In fact, I think it is a privilege and a gift to have the opportunity to bother. You are all sitting on the precipice of a great adventure. And you have already proven yourselves worthy and capable. In fact, there are many reasons I want you to and encourage you to bother By applying for and getting these scholarships, you have chosen the way of “being there” instead of looking for a shortcut just to “being someone.”
If you go to the scene, if you report well and honestly, if you write with vigor and authority, if you take the picture or image that matters, the “being someone” may follow. But even if it doesn’t, you’ll have been places, seen things, experienced and lived. And that, in the end, is why we should bother: because those kinds of adventures really matter.
Adventures like Darfur, where reporting (though perhaps slow to wake up and slow to ignite the public) has shone a spotlight on an immense human tragedy. Genocide, one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, it’s a tragedy and a horror. And while you can argue that it hasn’t gotten enough media attention, Here’s a quote from a story Reuters Opheera McDoom wrote about her reporting: ” They are not there to beg for food, water or medicine -- luxury goods in the war-torn western province -- but to tell their stories of rape, beatings or losing their entire families, in the mistaken hope that recording their name in my little white notepad will bring their suffering to an end.
Feeling guilty, I write down their names and stories, knowing only one refugee will likely make it into the story I will send.
That’s powerful stuff, sad stuff. But what I’d say to you is that sometimes one refugee does make a story, and one story does make a difference, as long as it’s well reported, well written… and read.
So too in adventures like Iraq, where journalists have braved terrible danger to describe a war in detail from as many angles as possible, stimulating vociferous public debate. We weren’t satisfied just with official briefings. We weren’t satisfied just with embedded reporting slots. The media went out and covered, and told a story.
Adventures like the Asian Tsunami, where the sheer immensity of death and destruction would have been hidden and the multi-millions of dollars of much-needed aid would have remained deep in pockets without the vivid, eyewitness reporting by text, television and photographic journalists. It’s a world story, touching so many countries, creating so many thousands of unimaginable stories of grief that we bring home in a few well-crafted lines, or a heartbreaking photograph of a father cradling his dead son, or a horror-filled video clip.
And adventures like those that exist in the financial markets. It’s both vitally important and fun to unravel a financial scandal. It’s a gift to be able to explain how a currency crash can devastate people as profoundly as an air crash can traumatize a country.
It’s a necessity to be able to report on the economic and social and personal effects of the outsourcing wave as it hits first call centers and then white collar jobs in many professions – including our own.
How could anyone write about Argentina these past few years without understanding currencies? Or write about China without understanding trade or commodities? Or write about Europe without understanding pensions and what happens when they’re underfunded? Or even write about the US, where, in the immortal words of the first Clinton campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.” These are vital stories, fun stories, important stories. And they need to be told well.
In my own case, I’ve had a tremendous run, starting in Hong Kong (where I was first a freelance reporter and then on a completely local contract. Like I said – be kind to those local and freelance reporters, one of them may be your boss someday!) I then moved to Taiwan, then China and then on to New York and now London.
I got to sit in Tiananmen Square, reporting night after night as the amazing democracy spring of 1989 unfolded in Beijing. I got to cover Taiwan, when the currency was swinging from a vine and politicians were punching each other out in Parliament. And of course there was September 11, when I was running the Americas for Reuters editorial and the story was here, in New York, affecting reporters themselves and making it so heartbreakingly difficult to maintain professionalism and objectivity. But that is what we as a profession did. And that’s what makes it so worthwhile.
So why do we bother?
First of all, it’s because of ourselves.
If you’re in this business, you have a love of adventure and a passion for action. You’re a voyeur of the best kind, getting a charge out of watching people do things, getting a thrill out of seeing the world change, getting worked up about understanding how things fit together or fall apart. And most importantly, you have a love of the story and of story telling. And that means not just watching, but telling. That means not just studying but understanding, and understanding well enough to communicate what you’ve learned. That means above all falling in love with the narrative of this world and making sense of events and people in words or pictures that tell a coherent story.
So, then, why should we bother and why do we bother?
It’s because of the story.
It’s because of a commitment to accuracy and to truth.
It’s because of a commitment to the people we’re reporting on, to tell their stories well and clearly and accurately.
It’s because of a commitment to the people we’re reporting for, to tell them stories that help them understand their world and to make sense of the inexplicable.
It’s because of a commitment to the people we’re reporting with, to be competitive but also collegial.
It’s because of a commitment, above all, to the truth and to the story. And now you, our scholarship winners are bothering and caring and starting that commitment, just as many of us before you have bothered and now will bother and care with you. You are standing at the start of your careers, at the start of the journey.
And during those times when you’re wondering whether or not you should continue to bother – for there will be times of frustration and exhaustion and even despair -- remember your commitment to truth. Remember that shining light on dark places matters. Remember that you have a gift for storytelling and an obligation to yourself and to the world to share it. Remember the sparkling excitement that this journey will always have as its potential.
Make it a good journey.
Make it a good story.