As the Polk and Pulitzer awards rolled out this year’s exceptional cast of recipients, I looked over the best of the best in this field I’ve chosen to study. I wanted to know: To whom should I look as a leader of the craft and the industry?
Today, journalism is rapidly changing — not just on the tides of globalization and technology, but also in tone.
In the past months, I have made my first leap into this field. I’ve studied news and reporting in class for the first time, and have been working as an intern for School News Network, a periodical run out of the Kent Intermediate School District.
What I have learned, above all, is objectivity. The journalist’s job is to write from behind the story, deliver balanced facts and attribute everything to creditable sources.
While learning, I’ve also reached my 21st community column for the Grand Haven Tribune. For almost two years now, I have been entrenched in arguing my own opinions.
So, it’s been quite a transition — practicing traditional, industry-standard approaches to news. But the truth is, there are merits to both styles. The two are traditionally mutually exclusive. But perhaps the most hard-hitting award-winning journalist this year has conducted groundbreaking and crucial work by stepping over this fall line to pursue deeper, personal reporting that is fair and yet impassioned.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian newspaper, along with colleagues Laura Poitras and Ewen McAskill, won the Polk Award for their reporting on national security. Together, they broke to the world the disclosures by Edward Snowden about the NSA’s surveillance tactics. What Greenwald accomplished is profound, but the way he works raises even more questions for his compatriots and competitors in the industry.
Op-Ed columnist Bill Keller of the New York Times published a conversation with Greenwald — an argument, really — about the role of the journalist. Keller practices what he considers “aggressive but impartial reporting,” while Greenwald believes that neutral and unbiased reporting begets a “suffocating restraint” that limits journalists and forces them to hide behind their words, avoiding the hard truths of their stories.
Greenwald goes on to say, “Human beings are not objective-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms. What is the value of pretending otherwise?”
Looking at Greenwald’s most recent work, he has achieved the mission of journalism through this very conduct. He considers journalism to be activism, which inspired me to look at what I do in that way. Activism really can be the role of this niche called the Opinion page. Greenwald’s insistence that this mode is the heart of journalism helps me feel fortunate for the opportunity I have to share this kind of writing.
Greenwald’s conduct is certainly nothing textbook. His approach is like the new school you can’t find in any school — yet. It contradicts everything I’ve learned this semester. It merges these two realms — the one that gives me a voice simply as a human being, and the one that I hope will place me into a career someday.
Although I’ve talked smack to it all year, my journalism textbook does yield some vital wisdom. It quotes writer and critic Cyril Connolly: “Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once.”
An article, especially one as unpolished and laced with naiveté as this one, may be read just once. But the journalist’s execution, his own way of the sword (pen, actually), leaves a lasting mark on the world’s perception of events that resonate throughout history. This is especially true in work so profound as the exposure of the surveillance state.
Sometimes, the issues require a heart as well as a head. Today and moving forward, the mighty pen-sword of the reporter needs a sharper edge.
— By Alexander Sinn, Tribune community columnist