Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Journalist's Burden

Kevin Abourezk, a journalist I respect and a man I admire (and pictured to the right), recently covered the shooting deaths at an Omaha Mall. He wrote about his experiences that day for reznet, an online newssite by and about Native Americans. I’m grateful for his blog entry. In it, he meditated on the difficulties of covering such a story. It’s important that journalists remind each other how difficult the job can be, how emotionally taxing. Sometimes the job can make us feel less than human. But in particular, I’m struck by this portion of his entry:

“Every time a group emerged, the media would swarm. I had mixed feelings about being part of that. / I've always believed journalism serves a vital democratic function in our society, documenting each day's events in order to provide citizens the information they need to improve their lives and that of their fellow men and women. / But standing there with video cameras rolling in witnesses' faces, I couldn't help but wonder if there was a better way. That day, I couldn't think of one.”

What Kevin and the other reporters did is necessary, and I think there doesn’t need to be a better way. When journalists record such moments of raw grief, they serve a valuable purpose, likely as valuable (if not more so) than helping inform readers in advance of an election. They help people make sense of the world. By listening as people speak of their suffering, journalists provide them an opportunity to give shape to their grief. By carrying that grief and passing it on, journalists help others begin to understand a world that shocks and confuses. As a conduit of grief, the journalist connects the sufferers to the sympathetic, helps create a solidarity that we need in the horrible moments, such as in Omaha, more than at any other time. James Baldwin wrote in his classic short story “Sonny’s Blues” that though “the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must always be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.” Carrying such news is a burden, one no one should relish; I see no way any reporter can feel comfortable carrying the weight, but I’m grateful that Kevin, and so many others, do.

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