Essay | On Journalism and Majors

Without fail:

"What are you studying?" they ask with sincerity.
"Creative writing," I answer.
"Oh," they say, with a piqued interest. "So are you thinking of doing journalism?"

Not really, no. Maybe back in those primitive, mesozoic freshman days. But in these modern times, I have moved to the less reliable and riskier field of straight-up fiction. And not profitable young adult fiction about teens-morphing-into-animals or thinly veiled projections of vampire romances. Since 11th grade AP English, I've been indoctrinated in the traditions of literary fiction. I've been pointed in the direction of the big theme, and when I'm lucky I even graze them.

So, what's the deal with journalism, right? (and when I use this term here I mean your average written news report, not editorials or creative articles). I'm perfectly okay and interested in non-fiction, especially the creative sort that employs the same storytelling mechanics of fiction.

I have often heard many an aspiring writer speak of journalism in exactly the same terms: That it is dry, boring, clinical and unimaginative. It might be a cliche for a creative writing major to speak like that. I don't necessarily agree with these estimations; a good journalistic article can be just as rousing and thrilling and moving as any critically acclaimed contemporary fiction novel. But I can see where they draw those conclusions. The art of journalism is about whittling down a story to be sleek, efficient, and neutral. It strives for an economic flow of information in the bareness of its truth, not big themes. It speaks of reality instead life and the human condition. It starts with a lede and funnels down to specifics and answers the same 5 questions.

But there's a certain kind of elegence and fun in making a well-oiled informative piece. It feels like building a sturdy piece of furniture. You hammer in some nails, sandpaper a few edges, screw in some ... knob thingies. (perhaps I should metaphors in my hobby wheelhouse) Whereas fiction can oftentimes feel like free form, improvised painting. You don't really know the specifics of what you are creating or what the finished product should look like.

So for me it wasn't the lack of "creativity" that took away my desire to try journalism. I think it became official when I took my first real course in it. See, everyone knows and expects journalism to be kinda black and white and cold. But it's also challenging in its strict neutrality. There are ethics involved. Tough questions about what to publish, how it affects people, what is considered bigger news and deciding relevance. I did well in the class grades-wise, but it really showed me that I couldn't happily make these choices that strip me of my most passionate opinions.

Is the first lady visiting a local elementary school front page, above-the-fold news bigger than a train wreck in Bolivia that kills hundreds? If not, what if the wreck only killed fifty? Thirty? One? Is every one death bigger than any other news story not involving death? Should you publish all information you have? Is it your responsibility to inform the public about things that may hurt investigations? Hurt families and bystanders? How do you discern what you believe is the truth and the objective truth?

A good journalist has to compromise some morals and carry some burdens. A good journalist has to go against a few of their personal beliefs and opinions. They have to go for the truth whether they like the truth or not. And, both to my credit and discredit, I believe in some things too strongly to pretend that I don't.