Screening Moundsville this year has taken us to magazines, schools, libraries, old-age homes, theaters, small towns, and art galleries. My impulse in making the film was journalistic: I wanted to report an American story that everybody agreed was true. In post-film talks, I found myself having to explain, and thinking a lot about, what I think journalism is. Most people don’t really know. So when my neighbor, an English teacher at a high school in suburban Pittsburgh, invited me this spring to speak to his class, I said yes, and this is what I said:
First, don’t confuse journalism with media. You’re familiar with that: You have smartphones. Media is what you see on it.
Media is Netflix, Snapchat, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and radio, TV and newspapers. A Youtube clip by Taylor Swift, a tweet by Trump, a quiz on which Disney character you are. All of that.
I’m not here to talk about media. I’m here to talk about a subset: journalism.
Journalism is a type of media. It’s also a craft, a practice, a job, a way of looking at the world.
It’s work, driven by curiosity, integrity, a love of words and a love of the truth. It’s introducing the world to people, places, ideas and stories that don’t exist anywhere on page, stage, screen or speaker.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to do journalism.
Here’s the right way: find a story that is interesting and relevant to people, and introduces the world to a new idea, person or place.
Go talk to people. Make phone calls. Present yourself honestly. Write down what people say. Be persistent. A honey badger. Take some pictures with your phone. Do some reading. Write a story. Get somebody to edit it.
Without editors, you’ll get stuck in your own worldview and language. Editors will help you write for your readers instead of for yourself.
If you make a mistake, fix it, and print a correction.
Do this over and over again. There’s a right way to do it. Like any craft, the more you do it, the better you get it.
When I was in college, the textbooks and teachers told us that the mission of journalists was to inform, entertain and educate. That’s still true.
Another mission is holding powerful institutions, especially governments and corporations, accountable to the truth.
When big institutions see more value in their survival than in people, they lie.
The Catholic church lied to protect pedophile priests, Nixon lied to protect a burglary, and a company called Enron lied to protect profits. Journalists learned the truth by talking to people.
Good journalism is loving because it cares about people.
There’s so much media out there. Read, watch or listen to journalism done by people doing this work right.
Figure this out: Are they making a lot of phone calls? Are they talking to a lot of people before they write their story? Do they work hard to make it easy to read? When they make mistakes, do they hold themselves accountable and print corrections? If they do those things, it’s journalism and you can trust it. If not, it’s some other kind of media.
You’re so lucky: This country has a great tradition of trustworthy journalism. And you get to read, watch and listen.
You know you might want to be a journalist if your worldview is driven by curiosity. Look around you. Do you have questions? Who’s in charge here? Why? How? How is this room lit? Look up. Where were those lightbulbs made? Who invented the lightbulb? Who dug up at the sand used to make the glass used to make the bulb?
In America, we’re lucky because we have the first amendment that means you’re free to try to answer these questions. Don’t take that freedom for granted.
If you want to become a journalist, do it now, for your high school newspaper. Find a story. Go talk to people. You don’t ever have to study journalism, even in college. Like I said, it’s a craft. That means that, when you get a job, somebody will teach you how do it. And the more you do it, the better you’ll get. In school, learn stuff nobody will teach you later, like Shakespeare or physics.
Journalism will continue because, done right, the work is so valuable that we’ll always figure out a way to pay for it.
Journalism will endure because we will always love stories and words, and want to know more about the truth; and we will always be curious.
John W. Miller