Every journalist has heard the exhortation “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” The power to do good, to be a crusader for truth, justice and the American way, is what inspires many reporters to take up pen and notebook.
But too often, journalists “afflict the comfortable” or the powerful not because readers agree it’s the right thing to do, but because in doing so, they feel the satisfaction of slaying a dragon. Indicting people based on the journalist’s sense of right and wrong, instead of the public’s, is at the root of the public’s disdain for the profession.
The best of what journalists do comes from having a finely tuned sense of outrage and a hunch that the public will share that outrage.
Consider Anne Hull, reporter for The Washington Post, who won the prestigious Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award at Colby College for her work uncovering the terrible conditions faced by Iraq veterans at Walter Reed Army Hospital.
In her recent speech at Colby, Ms. Hull talked about stories she wrote about Mexican women who traveled to North Carolina for seasonal jobs picking crabmeat. Rather than merely interview the women, Ms. Hull traveled for four days on buses with them, and stood at their sides as they picked the crabmeat for eight hours a day. Instead of writing indignantly about the conditions these women were subjected to, she documented what they endured, and to a lesser extent, what she endured.
Ms. Hull used the same approach in the Walter Reed stories. They showed, rather than told, and the ultimate judges — the newspaper reading public — was outraged, and demanded that veterans be treated better.
In 1996, the Maine Press Association named Greg Davis, editor of the Rumford Falls Times, its journalist of the year for a story he wrote about horrible conditions in which migrant workers lived at DeCoster Egg Farms. Mr. Davis told of going on a field trip visit to the farm in Turner with his child’s school, and being appalled by living conditions. For months, Mr. Davis made surreptitious nighttime visits to the trailer park where the workers lived, and through an interpreter got their stories. Mr. Davis even brought area legislators in on the story before he published it, to ensure his outrage was justified.
In her remarks at Colby, Ms. Hull described what journalism does well, quoting Southern short story writer Eudora Welty, who said: “It is not my job to judge, but merely to pull the curtain back to reveal this hidden world behind it.”
Ms. Hull put the future of such journalism on the backs of readers: “If you demand a certain kind of journalism, it will survive. Demand to be informed in complicated and subtle ways. Demand stories that attempt to get at the heart of something instead of nibbling around the edges. If there’s a market and a hunger for this sort of reporting, it will survive.”