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DICKERSON: Are journalists suffering from blue-collar blindness?

• Jul 20, 2017 at 6:00 PM

Can you remember the name of the counter clerk who hands you a cup of coffee every morning? Can you even remember her face?

How about the guy who delivered your new washing machine or water heater?

Do you enjoy a friendly political argument every now and then? When was the last time you had one with the mechanic who changes your oil, the cashier at the grocery store, or the security guard who checks your I.D. badge when you enter your workplace?

Unless you're a teacher, clergy person or medical professional, some of the people you encounter in the course of a typical workday are less vivid than others.

It's not that you don't see them, exactly. You're not a snob; you recognize their humanity, and certainly their capacity to make your life a little easier or harder.

It's just that you presume that their interests are different than your own — especially if you're among the minority of adults who've acquired a college degree, and they're not.

Reporter Heather Bryant spends most of her working days in the company of other college-educated journalists. In a recent blog post, she describes the shock one of those colleagues betrayed when Bryant revealed that her husband made his living driving a garbage truck.

It was not, Bryant concluded, the "middle-class answer" her colleague had expected.

The journalist who'd inquired about her husband's line of work was quick to cover her surprise, but only after her initial reaction — a facial expression that conveyed confusion tinged with distaste — had lodged itself in Bryant's craw.

As Bryant sees it, her friend's surprise is symptomatic of her profession's patronizing attitude toward people who do work that requires less skill (or at least fewer academic credentials) than their own.

"Journalism has a class problem. We know this," she writes in her post on medium.com.

"The best internships are for students with the resources to work unpaid or with low pay in some of the most expensive cities in the country. Conferences are expensive and often hosted in expensive cities, making it difficult for smaller newsrooms to send reporters. The bulk of the jobs are clustered in major metropolitan areas.

"That’s not to say people without means don’t make it into journalism. They do. But it’s a longer, rougher road, with far fewer people making it to the end," Bryant adds, concluding that her profession "would be better if we were a better representation of the backgrounds and experiences our audiences have."

I want to believe that Bryant's indictment is overstated, and that journalists, as a class, are more sensitive to the needs and hopes of people less fortunate than ourselves. As she herself acknowledges, many of us hail from working-class families in which ours was the first generation to attend college, or spent our early working lives flipping burgers, waiting tables or stocking grocery shelves,

It's easier to see people who spend their lives in anonymous labor if you've been invisible yourself.

But there's little doubt that the intellectual elitism Bryant describes pervades many newsrooms, even (or maybe especially) those that take pride in their racial, gender and ethnic diversity.

This is hardly unique to journalism, as anyone who has observed the subtle boundaries between doctors and patients or lawyers and clients knows. But it is uniquely hazardous to those of us who endeavor to describe, with empathy and accuracy, the yearnings and travails of our fellow homo sapiens.

I'm as proud of my education as any of my elitist colleagues. But when I find myself sneering at someone's civic illiteracy or silently correcting an irate reader's grammar, I like to remember the lifeboat exercise, in which players imagining themselves on a sinking ship compete for a limited number of seats on the only rescue craft at hand.

Played thoughtfully, the lifeboat game rewards players who are skilled at recognizing their fellow passengers' unique talents, regardless of their academic or professional credentials. And you don't need a college degree to surmise where a stickler for grammar would end up.

You may contact Brian Dickerson at the Detroit Free Press at: bdickerson@freepress.com.

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