Sometimes I get asked what it is like to be a journalist.
Usually it is by a student taking a tour of the facility, their eyes wide as they watch our presses spin while printing out copies of the day’s edition. Or right after they see our newsroom, full of reporters typing madly on computers, with their phones held by their shoulders against their ears.
What is it like to be a journalist?
Well, it’s fun for the most part. It has to be. We are not getting rich doing this, it’s highly stressful and the hours are long. So, it has to be fun.
But, what is it really like to be a journalist? This question has been kicking around in my head following a beating we took online recently for doing our jobs.
First, get ready to be hated and called names. In today’s political environment, we are considered the enemy of politicians and their partisan supporters. We are hated for seeking out the truth and for presenting that truth to the public. We are called liars (we aren’t), fake news (we aren’t) and many other names, just for doing our jobs. If you report something that goes against what some people think is true — no matter how much evidence you have — you will be called biased.
And yes, it does get disheartening after a while. You can only take getting insulted for so long. We are human, after all.
On the “biased” issue, it seems no matter how hard you try to present both sides of an issue or how fair you try to be, you will still be called “biased” eventually.
Take, for example, our recent coverage of a Planned Parenthood demonstration and counter demonstration in Petoskey. Knowing this was a highly charged issue, we decided to publish just a few photos online and show both sides in each of the photos on the Saturday of the protest. Plus we decided since there would be two sides to this issue out protesting, we would follow up on online coverage with a printed story on the Monday after the protest giving the rational for and against Planned Parenthood by both sides.
Even going to those lengths to be fair, we still were called biased — except it came from people on both sides of the issue.
Second, you need to keep your mouth shut much of the time. You must be careful when giving your opinion on many topics, only doing so to very close friends and family (sometimes you can’t even do that) and never in public. For example, I will only give my opinion in public on topics that I have editorialized on in the opinion pages of the Petoskey News-Review in either this column or in an editorial. If I haven’t given my opinion on this page, then it is very likely I won’t tell anyone what I think, not even family.
Third, you can absolutely not be political. No one, not even my closest friends and family, know exactly how I have voted in any election. Neither I nor any of my reporters may contribute to any political campaign or sign any political petitions. We never put any campaign signs on our cars or in our yards. I frown on even their significant others putting a campaign sign on their vehicle or taking part in a political campaign.
For example, recently, my wife wanted to donate to a political campaign and put a political bumper sticker on her car. But, she didn’t because of me. She knew I could not be associated with anything political and her putting a sign on her car could make people think I support the issue or candidate, as well.
Fourth, and here is something that is cool, you are on the front lines of history. We record history as it is happening, we witness it as it is happening, we become the primary source. That makes it very important that we get it right, for the most part, but it is also breathtaking to realize that you are seeing something taking place in a community, a state or a country that people generations from now may still be talking about.
And lastly — I will end this on a positive note — you get to meet some absolutely fascinating people. I am not talking about the celebrities and politicians that you will meet, I am talking about the everyday people of a community. Every community I have ever covered — and there have been many communities — have had people with stories and rich lives that I could sit and listen to for hours. Those are the people that I am honored to meet and feel good telling and recording their story for future generations.
The term “journalist” is tossed around today as though it is some shadowy outside figure that doesn’t really exist, like the boogeyman. In reality, a journalist is just a person working hard at their jobs trying to get facts together to inform a community, a state or a country. They can be your neighbors, your family, your friends and customers at your business. Sometimes they make mistakes, just like any other person.
Journalists are humans, just like you. Remember that before blindly degrading them or dismissing them.
Jeremy McBain is the executive editor of the Petoskey (Mich.) News-Review. He can be contacted by calling (231) 439-9316 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. This column first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of the News-Review.