Many days I miss being a journalist. The job could be great fun. And the people, oh the characters, I met. There are so many stories I don’t dare share publicly that still make me laugh. I also worked alongside some of the most entertaining humans one will ever know.
This proves less and less so every day, especially as our nation seems to rack up tragedies as senselessly and randomly as the point system on ESPN’s Around the Horn.
Friday, a man shot and killed 27-year veteran Iowa State Trooper Jim Smith after an incident in Grundy Center.
A Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright, a Black man, during a traffic stop. The Brooklyn Center chief said he believes the shooting was accidental.
Brooklyn Center is a suburb of Minneapolis, where a year ago George Floyd, also a Black man, died after a Minneapolis cop leaned on Floyd’s neck with his knee for nearly 9 minutes. That former officer, Derek Chauvin, stands trial for Floyd’s murder less than 20 minutes by car away from where Wright died.
A Knoxville, Tennessee, student shot and wounded a police officer at a magnet school. The student died when police returned fire. As the pandemic wanes, so raises the sadly familiar fear of our schools as targets for spree killers rather than institutions for learning.
Some of my best work and fondest memories came on the night police beat for the local Gannett Outlet Store. The beat also drained me of my humanity.
Trooper Smith died in the line of duty. The reporters from the wire services, the newspapers, radio stations and TV stations dig in. They want details about Smith’s life. Family. Children. Hobbies.
Many times, reporters find themselves at the door of someone who has suffered a terrible tragedy: the loss of a loved one by violence. This always churned my guts. I couldn’t help but think the last thing in the world I would want was some stranger on my front stoop knocking on my door and asking me to tell them all my secrets.
If I were still practicing the trade, I might have had to knock on that door.
I chocked down my distaste for this work with the advice of Tom Alex, the Register’s longtime day police reporter. He always said it was better to have someone call you a son of a bitch and slam the door in your face before you wrote the story than write the story and then have somebody call and call you a son of a bitch because you got it wrong and didn’t even try to talk the victim’s family.
But near the end of my career this was not enough. The digital age demanded push alerts and real-time updates to website stories. We sometimes wrote from notoriously inaccurate scanner traffic. We clawed for every piece of information and pushed it out.
Reporters were given less and less time to work with police officers and develop sources. There was a time when cops and reporters got to know each other as people. Now reporters demand things and cops fear reporters are pushing a political agenda with each question.
It’s a stalemate that is detrimental not only to news reports but the trust in both institutions, neither of which can afford to lose more ground with an increasingly distrustful and divided public.
That same stalemate occurs in reporting on the racial implications of the trial of Chauvin and the truth of Wright’s death at the hands of police in the same metro area.
Passions burn. Attempts to find the truth that contradict our preconceived notions about what and why caused these deaths. The pick-your-confirmation bias media force us to parrot the angry talking points that agree with what we agree with what we’ve already determined are the facts.
Most you’re-with-us-or-against-us narratives are false, but the public has no patience for non-binary ideas. Somebody is a good guy. Somebody is a bad guy. Pick which one and scream on social media.
Half of journalism jobs disappeared between 1990 and 2020. The anemic reporting staff that remains is ill-equipped and poorly experienced to vet the issues of the day let alone foster meaningful and healing discussion.
They try, but most outlets are owned by greedy corporate hustlers and hedge funds whose only point is to turn $1 into $2 as fast as possible in order to make a handful of rich white men fractionally richer.
Today’s journalists are forced to beg for subscribers in their social media feeds and use metrics — what people clicked on yesterday — to decide what to cover the next day. Sometimes this means news outlets make fools out of themselves trying to get too many bites out of a one-hit feature story like Fruit Loops pizza. Other times, it means worthy projects are abandoned because the online audience has lost interest.
This is not a one-to-one. News outlets, even the ones I make fun of, do try to keep the public informed.
But the public does not want to be informed. It wants to be affirmed.
The problem, of course, is we are all merely human and, by definition, flawed and prone to mistakes.
Our only hope is to recognize is that our flaws unite us and the correction can only be found in a collective offering of grace.
Many days I miss the newsroom, but mostly I miss the people and the memories. When I think of the task before them, the challenges they face and they pain and suffering they witness, those are the days I’m glad to be a civilian, knowing the phone won’t ring with an editor asking me to go ask strangers to tell me their secrets.
Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification.
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