Chicago — Most of our jobs require us to do things that we’re not naturally comfortable with.
Some of those tasks include presenting in front of several people or making cold calls to people we don’t know or who we know may not want to talk to us. It might be sitting at your desk all day. It might be doing the kind of math you didn’t pay attention to in college.
Sometimes these uncomfortable things can be good for us and force us to grow in directions we want to go in — towards being experts and leaders in our field. Other times they might go against values we did or didn’t know we had, revealing something about our roles that doesn’t align with the person we want to be.
It’s something I wrestled with a lot in my journalism career. I began how people begin most things, naively. Journalism was a profession that aimed to serve and educate the public, I thought. Didn’t take long to realize journalism was much more than that. It was a business and for many companies it was as much about entertainment as it was education.
Both endeavors — educating and entertaining — required uncomfortable things from me. To educate I needed to learn topics I didn’t previously have exposure to and I had to form relationships with intimidating figures in government, business and in the community. Sometimes my research required long conversations with smart people, hours of difficult-to-understand documents and cold calls to strangers, all while minding my deadlines. To entertain, I had to consider the topics people wanted to read using our analytics and I had to write in the most compelling ways possible.
Both endeavors forced me to learn useful skills that I still rely on. But they also required me to do things I didn’t have the stomach for.
When a girl was shot and killed in October 2020 at a Halloween party, I had to track down her family to comment despite their pleas for privacy. Going against their wishes, I was assigned to attend the funeral, where I kept my press credentials buried in my pocket, acting as if I wasn’t there for quotes and was there to grieve with her other loved ones. I had to go to the suspected shooter's arraignment, where a boy my age and my skin color stood before a judge; I had to stand in the elevator with his crying mother, trying to bring myself to ask her questions she was in no mood to answer.
I understood that journalists had a job to do and that they had responsibilities and principles to follow but I couldn’t understand how pestering mourning families would make me a better person or make the world a better place. What would the world do with those quotes from the families? What value would it bring to their lives? What could they learn, why would they want to be entertained by it?
One of my editors said it was to help shed light on the victim’s life but I kept wondering whether it was even our story to tell considering the requests for privacy. I had worked on obituaries where there were tons of willing interviewees who wanted to honor the deceased in my articles but this was different. This felt like a violation.
That experience gave me mixed feelings about what it means to be a journalist. While I still honor the amazing skills it takes to be one, I still question how committed the industry is to its stated values and whether I’m the kind of person who can be a good expression of them — or whether anyone can.
All I know is this: it’s important to step outside your comfort zone but for me, it’s not as important to violate someone else’s.
Noah Johnson (he/him/his) is a Chicago-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @noahwritestoo.
Edited by NaTyshca Pickett