Nonfiction in response to Peace, Justice and Strong Insitution
Press Corps: On Media as a Dangerous Career Choice
By Ilana Arougheti
News used to be my safe place. The fabric of my childhood was set to NPR: pancakes and Fresh Air on Saturday mornings, novels and This American Life on Saturday afternoons, bagels and the Wait, Wait! news quiz with Sunday brunch. The first time I walked into my high school newsroom was the first time I felt like something bigger than myself. The first time I turned on a camera at sophomore summer broadcast camp was the first rest of my life that didn’t fall apart before I could form a clear daydream.
However, the more I get older, the more I realize that media is anything but a safe choice. Sometimes the members of society tasked with effecting the most change are relegated the most to the shadows. The teachers who help every young person learn and grow are underpaid and underappreciated. Public defenders work themselves to the bone even when an overtasked state judicial system puts dozens of difficult cases on their plates at a time. And journalists are not just the writers who keep institutions current, connected and accountable to their constituents, but the repositories of incredible risk and backlash. And if I want to take the reins in the field that taught me how to feel like a part of the greater world, myself – and all students like me entering the 24-hour news cycle - have to take the greater world onto our shoulders even if it means being wounded by the strain.
My classmates who are going to nursing school are thinking about which major cities have the best hospitals. My classmates who are going to business school are seeking the best target markets for their startups. Meanwhile, I have to think about metrics like which countries kill the most journalists every year, how many sources in Washington are so confidential that an interview could land you in prison, where in the world my articles can be read without a mandatory web filter. When I tell people I want to study journalism, they warn me about late nights and low pay. Some of my friends are already debating whether they can live the constantly mobile life of a foreign correspondent and still have a family. Some of my friends sat with me last fall at a high school journalism convention seminar about war journalism and watched the back of my neck tense as a young woman talked about her brushes with death on the field and the PTSD she still suffers, back home in her own newsroom.
Further, more often than I’d care to admit, I feel resentful that pursuing a career in journalism automatically comes as a political statement now. All the eyes in my government class flick to me when someone tosses out a baiting fake news, or when the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi comes up in current events class. Maybe I just want to try writing about characters that actually breathe, places I can actually visit, issues I don’t have to cloak in allegory to combat. Maybe I’m not ready to be an ambassador. But I’ve come to realize that the state of my field has become much too tenuous to chase a byline without first embracing the unprecedented urgency of the modern press.
If our institutions – if my institution – is not strong, then we cannot cross oceans and peer into companies and speak to students and live alongside the desperate and destitute and ultimately be assured that the risks we are taking for understanding are not baseless and moot. I’m getting tired, and I’m getting worried. It’s scary to think that I am setting myself up to be Hollywood’s underdog, D.C.’s foe, and nobody’s hero.
However, I also know that the less safe media feels, the more its success starts to matter. If telling stories becomes too difficult, who will tell the story of societies’ difficulties as they grow?
I am a journalist, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I am an advocate of free speech, a bastion of stability, and a traveling voice. My mistakes are under a microscope, I am compelled to put a lot on the line for that one untapped viewpoint, and I have to fight for my audience even as some of them fight against me.
I welcome my fate.