Journalism, before the fall

Monday, September 10, 2012
Early in 2001, before the world changed in so many ways, Thomas Kunkel, then dean of journalism at the University of Maryland and president of American Journalism Review, wrote an article subtitled "Why it's impossible not to love the journalism biz."

In it, he counted down a Top 10 list of reasons journalism is "a fabulous line of work." He was right. It is a great line of work. It gives you license to ask anyone anything, a front-row seat to the unfolding of history. It's a job in which your main responsibility -- your privilege -- is to learn something every day and then teach everyone else. Done right, it's the essential Job That Is Never Boring.

But Reason No. 4 set me off [emphasis mine]:
... most people do respect you -- because your life is more interesting than theirs ...
So I wrote a letter to the editor, which the magazine printed. Here it is:

Date: May 31, 2001 9:03:51 AM CDT
To: "'editor@ajr.umd.edu'"
Subject: "... because your life is more interesting than theirs"

My Top 10 list of the great things about journalism would include learning that lots of people have lives more interesting than those of journalists. Years of interviewing fascinating people from many walks of life have freed me of such condescension.

If the public perceives journalists as believing that their lives are "more interesting" than everyone else's, a great deal of the respect claimed by Mr. Kunkel is at risk.
Journalism students of today: Your job as reporter is interesting because the people you cover are interesting -- not the other way around. If you find yourself thinking your life is more interesting than the lives of the people you're covering, get a different job.

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