Why Do We Write?
Stephanie Hoos breaks down the struggle that journalists and writers face in finding their purpose in these turbulent times.
By Stephanie Hoos
In our current social and political climate, many call on journalists to share the core truth of what occurs both in front of and behind the scenes. Reporting, though sometimes biased and partisan, creates opportunities for information sharing and increased social responsibility. It’s natural for those who seek knowledge to look out for someone who was “there” at the moment an event took place, knowing that perspective will color the lens with which one views current events (and when that event will be deemed history). At its core, journalism and journalists exist to provide information for decision-making. Writers exist to communicate the fantasy and reality of a moment in time. Now, more than ever, one has to question information in order to make better decisions, often struggling to separate the fantasy from reality.
Immediately after the murder of George Floyd, the world did not have to wonder what happened because his murder was captured fully on camera. Were the people who filmed Floyd’s murder journalists? That depends. Journalism can be produced by anyone who creates journalistic content. However, all content isn’t journalistic and engaging in activities like writing or filming doesn’t automatically guarantee a journalistic outcome. According to the American Press Institute, “The journalist places the public good above all else and uses certain methods – the foundation of which is a discipline of verification – to gather and assess…,” so it is not about just capturing a moment. It is about capturing truth and wondering up until the last moment before publication if that truth actually exists on the page.
When news is purely factual, it presents individuals with options for how to move forward with those facts. Each journalist is obligated to locate the truth and then interrogate how that truth came to be. It’s not enough to know something took place, but one has to ask how that event took place. Similarly, students must interrogate resources and ask themselves how reliable resources can be and what biases might inform the story. Though we all may have watched in horror as George Floyd died, we were not all present (either physically or via technology) for all that followed. Each news outlet reported public outcry, some labeling that outcry as protest and others as rioting. That truth laid fully in the eye of the beholder as well as the desire of the beholder to grant power to a particular story. That story’s power has the potential to keep circumstances as they are or create opportunities for change.
So, why do we write? It very much depends on the writing. There are some writers that utilize their words to create an escape from all that stands in our way, emotionally and physically. There are those who write to create new worlds because the one we inhabit is just too painful to endure. There are others, though, who write to tell us what we should already know but may be too compromised to see. Readers can often find the sun of truth clouded by many a structure from family to faith and all that lay between. The journalist, then, must produce something that will compel the reader to wonder, “If this is true, what does that say about me? If this is true, what can and should I do?”
The greatest journalists of our current moment have often turned to their own experiences to inform their writing. They recognize their biases are in full force, especially now that we live in a period of time in which race, political party, friend group, and even age can create opportunities for growth or build an impediment to our own survival. In the time of COVID-19, we yearn for truths beyond wondering. We ask for information beyond curiosity. However, the journalist can only produce what can be verified. These days, however, even our questions have questions attached to them.
Walter Cronkite, a journalist once labeled the World’s Most Trusted Man in America, said, “The least of us is improved by the things done by the best of us, because if we are not able to land at least we are able to follow” (A Reporter’s Life). Are the best of us writers because we provide a world that exists beyond our current scope? Are the best of us journalists because we document what we see, only to interrogate it for truths that will improve ourselves and our peers? In the current world we inhabit, is fantasy better than reality? Is reality where we must live in order to create this better world we seek? It all depends on where and when you see truth and to whom you choose to report it.