The other day I received a delightful email message from Nayeon Ju, a student at Ewha Womans University in South Korea. She majors in communication and media and dreams of becoming a journalist. She now works as a student reporter at the university.
After reading some of my work, she became interested in the fact that I had built my career around both academic teaching and practical journalism.
Here are her questions and my answers.
I have heard that you worked not only as a journalist, but also as an instructor. First of all, could you tell me how you began to work as a journalist?
I wanted to become a university professor of language and literature. I got an advanced degree and worked for three years at a small college. I met some journalists there. They impressed me with the quality of their writing and their commitment to social justice. I began writing my own essays for newspapers, learning a new craft, and finding an audience of readers beyond the academy. I came to think of myself as a “practical scholar,” someone who could build bridges between the newsroom and the academic world.
What was the most memorable moment in your career as a journalist? If you don’t mind, I would like to ask you what is your favorite article among those you wrote?
In 1995 and 1996 I wrote a 29-part series of stories about a family struggling with the death of the father from AIDS. It was a time when there was a great stigma against people who had the disease, and when contracting HIV was considered a death sentence. My series, “Three Little Words,” revealed the human side of the disease. It was delivered in daily chapters over the course of one month. Each chapter was short so that readers could keep up. Because of these innovations, the series received a lot of attention, and the Tampa Bay Times is considering republishing now, 25 years later, with a podcast. It seems appropriate for here we are, once again, in the middle of a pandemic looking for a cure or a vaccine.
When was your happiest moment while working as a journalist?
Two moments stand out, and neither one is about me. Tom French and Diana Sugg both won Pulitzer Prizes for their work, Tom as a feature writer, and Diana as a beat reporter. This is the highest honor in American journalism, and I was delighted to see two of my students and closest friends receive it. I coached them, but I learned more from them than I could ever teach.
I think journalists are always busier than others, and it’s hard for them to have time for themselves. So, I wonder if you have ever wanted to quit the job as a journalist.
I am a writer who teaches. And a teacher who writes. Think about it as two separate sources of energy. When I teach, I learn to perfect my writing. And when I write, each story becomes a workshop, where I learn some new thing that I can teach. I believe that prevents what is sometimes referred to as “burnout.” I also have creative interests outside of my professional life, including sports, music, and community work. And, of course, family. I have three daughters. They keep me young. They add spark to both my writing and teaching.
I wonder if you have been both working as a journalist and educating students together, and how long you have been doing both kinds of work. And I want to ask if it was not hard for you to do both things at the same time.
Two of my daughters are in the theater. They have a name for a certain kind of performer. That person is called a “triple-threat.” That means she can act, she can sing, and she can dance. That person may be more talented in one area than another but knows it is a good thing to practice the areas in which they may be a little weaker. I am a better writer than a reporter, so I have to work harder on my reporting. Digital technology introduced innovations that I continue to try to learn. I want to learn something new about my craft every day to achieve my highest goal, which is to write good stories in the public interest.
I have heard now you are mainly working as an educator, so I wonder why you have decided to mainly focus on teaching rather than working as a journalist.
The pandemic has changed everything. We are working from home, not at the office. Our travel and reporting opportunities are more limited. I am now teaching students all over the world in Zoom sessions. I wish the world were different now, but I have been motivated to write and teach more than ever, donating my services to schools, community organizations and newspapers.
What do you think is the most important value when you write? Please tell me your thoughts on what is the appropriate attitude for writers when they are writing.
Public writers, not just journalists, must work very hard to achieve what I call “civic clarity,” the ability to make hard facts — as in science — easier reading. The reporter must take responsibility for what readers know and understand about the world. They do this through meaningful reports and compelling stories.
In the process of writing, there are many different steps such as thinking, drafting, getting feedback, and rewriting. I wonder, what do you think (personally) is the most important step among these?
I believe that every writer in every genre in every culture must solve the same problems, such as finding an idea, collecting relevant information, discovering a focus, selecting the best details, finding an order, creating a draft, and revising. Of all of these, the central act is FOCUS. What is the story about? What does the reader need to know? What is my headline? How will I begin? The answer to those questions leads you to a focus.
I read your article, the ethics of attribution, in a book called “Telling True Stories.” I remember you emphasized checking if the materials in the article were correct. Journalists are always arguing about whether facts or truth should be more important. I wonder which of the two you value more.
I don’t believe in the idea of a “higher truth” in nonfiction writing and journalism. When writers say that they are seeking a higher truth, they are creating an excuse to fabricate, fictionalize, make things up. If your mother did not really hit you with a stick and throw you in the river, you can’t put it in your story. The accumulation of facts and details creates a “practical truth,” a verifiable reality, that is at the heart of the process — and of democracy. When someone is writing personal essays, as I often do, I know my memory is not perfect. I may get things wrong, but it is not because I am intentionally making things up. And I love poetry, dramatic literature, fiction, and cinema, which have different standards of factuality. It helps to be transparent, to share your working methods with your readers.
Journalists always have to write based on facts, but as you know, knowing whether it’s true or not is not a simple process. I wonder how you check the facts when you write as a journalist or writer.
The school where I have taught for many years, the Poynter Institute, has become the center of the fact-checking world. Journalists all over the globe are trying to strengthen their fact-checking muscles. They are learning skills that they are passing along to other journalists, to citizens, and to students of all ages. There reaches a point in a story — or especially in a book manuscript — where I go over it phrase by phrase. I ask myself the question, “How do I know this?” If I have a doubt, I check it again. Accuracy is not a one-person job. It begins, of course, with the reporter. But it “takes a village” — including sharp-eyed editors — to get things right. I have written six books in 12 years. Each one has at least three errors in it. So you try and try, and do you best, and if you get it wrong, you make a correction.
Lastly, could you please send a message of support or give some advice to future Korean journalists hoping to become journalists like you?
Thank you, Nayeon for this invitation. Young journalists of South Korea. You live in one of the world’s most important democracies. You only have to look to the North to understand what happens where there is no real journalism. We have our own problems here in America, where many powerful forces seek to undercut the work of journalists. Work hard on your craft. Become a careful reader and a purposeful writer. Do not be intimidated by those in power. And always remember that being a good writer requires a powerful sense of mission and purpose. You are writing for the good of your town, your city, your region, your country, and the world. But focus first on your town.