“Ms. Gelsinger’s essay captures the spirit of IF Stone. She writes clearly and persuasively about her work in class and as an intern, and she connects her work (and the work of her colleagues) to journalism’s aspiration to hold power accountable. Her curiosity, persistence and commitment to rigor are apparent in her essay.
We were especially struck by this passage in which she writes about her internship at the Cambridge Chronicle: ‘I learned that it is important for people to know what was talked about at their city’s budget meeting, what happened at this year’s Pride Brunch, and how many local high school athletes suffer from head injuries. It’s not glamorous work, but they are stories that need to be told. Without uncompromising local journalism, city government and institutions are not held accountable to their citizens.’”
By Carly Gelsinger
Journalism is a powerful tool in society. At its best, journalism has the power to expose corruption, restore justice, and spur societal reform. Too often, however, a journalist’s work is adulterated with other motives: the desire to please a boss, get their story on the front page, get a promotion or make friends in the business. While none of these things are inherently wrong, I believe that great journalism can only be produced when the value of truth telling is placed higher, and independent from these secondary motives.
It is easy to have a conversation on the topic of independent journalism and only point out what “those bad reporters” do at that “that bad corporation,” and never have to confront our personal ethics. Cartoonish, exaggerated images of a devious CEO hovering behind the desk of a young, harried journalist as he writes come to mind. When we discuss independent journalism, I think it is important to talk about what it means in the concrete, the personal and the here-and-now.
What then, are the standards, or qualities of an independent journalist that I plan to incorporate in my own career?
Curiosity, while not directly related to independence, is what propels journalists to produce great work. We are, by nature, collectors of information. A good journalist questions everything she sees. We constantly ask “why,” and even when given answers, we usually remain skeptical. We seek out and study documents that no one else reads.
I believe that we do this because deep down, past all our cynicism and distrust, we’re really idealists. I.F. Stone was a cynic, in the sense that he questioned government’s motives with dogged determination. He distrusted government. He exposed corruption. He believed that the powerful abused the weak. But his cynicism ultimately stemmed from his true sense of idealism—that by pursuing information and sharing it with others, he was doing his part in creating a more just society.
An independent journalist tells the truth at all costs. This means being willing to be disliked, and being willing to make the reader uncomfortable. This means not letting my commitment to objectivity, however good intended, muddle the truth.
It’s too common process: a reporter will approach a complex debate, and with minimal research, call representatives from both sides of the issue, write a lead that reflects the dissenting opinions, and include equally proportioned quotes from both sources.
When a reporter approaches a story this way, he is often sacrifices capital-F-Fairness for a fleeting, smaller-minded fairness. He may have been fair to the two sources he interviewed in the story, but he may have disregarded Fairness in the larger sense—fairness for the truth.
Research is another nonnegotiable skill for a good reporter, but is often overlooked step in the newsroom today. A writer who does her research is free to write confidently. She knows what the story is really about and is able to stand firm in the face of public relations departments, or other sources that may try to control the content of the story.
Last spring, I was on a project with two other colleagues as a part of an investigative journalism course. Under the guidance from my professors Dick Lehr and Mitchell Zuckoff, I learned what it means to have discipline in reporting. For this project, we sifted through hundreds of documents before we even conducted our first interview. Over a six-month period, we studied thousands of pages of criminal records, court records, insurance records, town records and more.
About halfway through our research, we uncovered a criminal witness payoff as part of the story. We were thrilled. Our professors helped us channel our excitement through reporting out the details of the payoff. As we reported more deeply, we learned that we could not prove it to be as suspicious as we first assumed. We did end up including the detail in the story, but were honest with our readers about what was and wasn’t proven; we did not want to make a claim that we could not firmly back up through research.
Which brings me to the thought that independent journalism doesn’t exist to entertain. Sensation sells. But an independent journalist, whether they work for a corporation or not, is more committed to the facts than they are to a bottom line. This is not to say that great journalism can’t be entertaining. Some of my favorite writers of our time—Gene Weingarten, Katherine Boo, Gay Talese and Michael Lewis—are compelling writers, and in certain moments, downright hilarious.
I think what makes these journalists so great, beyond their remarkable skill in writing, is their commitment to the craft. They are able to shed light on complex issues and simultaneously engage the reader. A prime example of this is Michael Lewis’ book “The Big Short.” When I read it, I found myself engrossed in a story of Wall Street and the subprime mortgage industry, a subject I had little interest in before.
This summer, I interned at the Cambridge Chronicle, a small weekly newspaper. There I learned to commit myself to reporting and research, even for community stories that sometimes only a handful of people read. I learned that it is important for people to know what was talked about at their city’s budget meeting, what happened at this year’s Pride Brunch, and how many local high school athletes suffer from head injuries.
It’s not glamorous work, but they are stories that need to be told. Without uncompromising local journalism, city government and institutions are not held accountable to their citizens.
Independent journalism means I will revere the truth above everything else: above so-called objectivity, above writing stories that sell. I will hold disciplined research as an integral part of the reporting process. I will not be afraid to question people and institutions with a healthy amount of cynicism. But through all this, I hope to never let go of the ideals that drove me to be a this field in the first place: that information sets people free, and that by writing the truth I am doing a small part in contributing to a better society.