Editor's Weekly parting thoughts Part 1: Think like a journalist

Dec 3, 2015

For me, being a journalist is more than a job. It’s a state of mind, a way of relating to the world. It’s a commitment to keep asking questions and an understanding that some questions will never be fully answered.

At the end of this month, I will retire. Yet I’ve never felt more certain that my beleaguered profession matters. Let me explain why. Let me challenge you to think like a journalist, too.

My ninth grade journalism teacher explained the basics: Good journalists must answer key questions, starting with five Ws and an H – who, what, where, when, why and how.

Facts matter – that was the message. Facts guard the border between the world as we believe it to be and the world as it actually is. It's hard to make the real world better unless we grasp the difference.

Good journalists, my teacher instructed, seek facts from the most direct sources – from personal observation; from participants, eyewitnesses and documents; from people who understand context and consequence. Multiple sources are better than one. If you are not a journalist, you may not be able to speak with these sources directly. But you can use these standards to make reasoned judgments about which accounts are reliable.

This process of pinning down facts can be arduous. Even when sources are trying to be honest -- and some are not -- their observations and recollections are fraught with human frailties of memory and misinterpretation. Basic facts -- who, what, where and when -- can be elusive.

Deeper questions of why and how are invariably complicated. They must be pondered and revisited. They may never be resolved.

And yet, it's instructive to keep trying. The late William F. Woo, former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, trusted the struggle of inquiry over the illusion of certainty. In his wallet, he carried a few lines from T.S. Eliot. They're ostensibly about writing but apply more broadly:

"And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion..."

The Post-Dispatch Platform includes a kindred call to marshal the forces of honest inquiry. “Always be drastically independent,” the Platform says; “never be satisfied with merely printing news.” These lines are ostensibly about journalism, but they, too, apply more broadly.

After all, in the digital world anyone can be a reporter and everyone must edit news that matters from the 24/7 glut of information. If mainstream media ignore or misrepresent stories, people can now tell their own.

In theory, these fragments of reality combine to form a more perfect whole. But in practice, the digital world is rife with distortion and misinformation. Rather than finding a more perfect whole, people find reinforcement for what they already believe. They indulge the illusion that their truth is the whole truth.

In contrast, good journalists challenge their own assumptions and the assumptions and assertions of others -- then challenge them again and again. Discovery of the world as it is, not as we believe it to be, requires a constant and evolving search for truth.

Journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that his own incessant questioning “has ruptured and remade me several times over.”

"...the changes have awarded me a rapture that comes only when you can no longer be lied to...," Coates says in Between the World and Me. "But even more, the changes have taught me how to best exploit that singular gift of study, to question what I see, then to question what I see after that, because the questions matter as much, perhaps more than, the answers.”

My career as a journalist is ending. But I'll keep asking questions. I hope you will, too.