If you were to ask most Americans what their relationship to the news is in this day and age, you probably wouldn’t get overwhelmingly positive responses. News is stressful, negative or too political. It makes people scared, or it makes them feel a sense of animosity towards the people around them. It feels like panic and looks like talking heads on a 24-hour cable cycle.
I can’t blame the people who feel this way about my profession for their anxiety surrounding the news, because I’ve felt it too. I’m 21 years old, finishing up my undergraduate degree in journalism and trying to figure out how to be a human person in the news industry without wanting to pull my hair out all the time.
One of the things that I hear a lot of journalists talk about is passion. Passion for their careers, for their work as a public service, for telling stories. I feel lucky to have passion for what I do at such a young age — something that plenty of people don’t ever feel in their careers. But being a young person, and a young journalist in the media environment we live in, can be immensely challenging.
Something I learned very early on in my career is that there’s no way to please everyone. Scrutiny of media institutions and the spread of misinformation has never been so rampant in our country, and it sometimes feels like even when you put your best foot forward, there’s someone waiting on the internet or in your email inbox to tell you that you’re wrong, or that you’re a hack, or that you’re public enemy number one.
It can be difficult to tune out the constant barrage of negativity that many people feel towards the press – see the last few weeks in Kansas, where a small-town newspaper was raided by local police, resulting in the death of one of its owners. We see journalists like Evan Gershkovich of the Wall Street Journal, detained in a Russian prison for months for the crime of doing his job. We see a distrust of once-respected fact-finding institutions and the constant teardown of expertise and research. In short, it’s not always encouraging.
Regardless of political affiliation, I think most Americans would agree that we’re standing at the crossroads of our democracy. We’re faced with options every time we open up our smartphones in the same way we are at the ballot box. Journalists will always be at the center of that crossroads, trying to suss out the most accurate information and help people make those choices. The more our readers, listeners or viewers understand about our jobs, the easier it will be for them to trust us.
In the last few years of my life, the first few of being a journalist, I’ve covered things that shocked me in a way I assumed reporters would usually be immune to. I’ve covered an election and all the events that came with it — I’ve been talked down to by candidates and yelled at by their supporters, I’ve seen an intense mobilization of Gen Z voters that even I didn’t expect, and I slept in my office to report live results. I’ve spent a lot of time at Michigan’s Capitol, covering events on the lawn that ranged from 2nd Amendment marches to pride parades. I watched a mass shooting take place on my own campus, and then went to work writing about it.
The things that are shocking to me now might not be in a year, or five, but I want to keep finding them. Finding them through the burnout, or the fear, or the news of constant layoffs of talented reporters at publications I thought would never decline. I hope I can be shocked by good people doing good things, through my own grief.
– Lily Guiney
I’ve found that regardless of how many times I get into a situation that’s new or different or scary, I haven’t become desensitized to this feeling of shock. It’s not always a bad thing – sometimes it’s shock at how far I’ve come, or how proud my younger self would be if she could see the rooms I find myself in regularly now. But sometimes it’s shock at the ways people are willing to treat each other, or shock at the awful things that happen all too often in our communities. Trying to navigate that shock is something I think about a lot, and something that, ultimately, I’m glad to carry around with me.
When you stop being shocked, or appalled, or really, really impressed with the things that cross your path in this line of work, you lose something. You lose your sense of empathy and the ability to look at people’s stories not just as a typing monster on a deadline, but a human who has connections and valuable perspectives to inform the work that you do.
Objectivity is complicated in 2023 — we’re all wrestling with how to report an accurate and unbiased truth without adhering to antiquated assumptions that the white, male perspective is automatically the most balanced. When we as journalists stop considering our lived experiences, whether as young people, or women, or people of color, or any other identity basis that hasn’t always been represented in our industry, we lose out on a whole new way of bringing the news to our audiences.
I hope I’m always a little shocked in this career. Right now, it’s a dogged mad dash to graduation, like running to the edge of a cliff and preparing yourself to jump without knowing what’s at the bottom. The things that are shocking to me now might not be in a year, or five, but I want to keep finding them. Finding them through the burnout, or the fear, or the news of constant layoffs of talented reporters at publications I thought would never decline. I hope I can be shocked by good people doing good things, through my own grief.
Grief is not something many people my age are prepared to bring with them into the first years of their careers post-grad. For me and my peers at Michigan State, it follows us around like a ghost that sits in your pocket or the back of your head, waiting for the right moment to become a huge distraction.
This summer, I covered several gun violence topics and cried a lot each time. I remember sharing with my friends that I felt like it was my responsibility to take on these stories, even if they were difficult, because I knew I could do them in a way that was sensitive and could make things slightly easier for victims and survivors. This is what I mean when I talk about considering your own experiences when reporting a story — I knew what it felt like to see invasive or insensitive media coverage of gun violence that affected my community, and so I was able to take note of the positives and negatives and then pull together what I hoped was thoughtful and considerate coverage.
A lot of the time, being a young person in journalism feels very lonely. Starting out in a new city or job, or riding the waves of shifting roles or opportunities means that sometimes there’s not much space to build a network of colleagues and friends that can act as a support system. If you’ll indulge me, it can feel like a certain Taylor Swift song – “You’re on Your Own, Kid.” You have your friends and family, but career wise, it sometimes is just getting tossed off that proverbial cliff and being all by yourself for a while. You give your blood, sweat and tears to a job that doesn’t always give back. But, as Ms. Swift reminds us, you may be on your own, kid, and you always have been, but, nevertheless, “you can face this.”
So, in an imperfect world, as imperfect people working in an imperfect industry, what does it mean to be young and starting out? I think it’s a bit like being a sponge – absorbent of ideas and opinions and ways to improve, but also with the ability to wipe the slate clean and come up with something people haven’t ever thought of before. Having passion doesn’t guarantee a smooth ride through life, but it does mean that, at very least, you’ll keep enjoying what you do.
I’ve gotten to work alongside some of the most talented people I’ve ever met during the last couple years, and the secret about that is that most of them are under 25 years old. They’re passionate about accuracy and information, but mostly they’re passionate about people. People and their stories, and what it means for those stories to be widely and easily available to anyone who wants to know about them. Young journalists are awesome sponges. Investing in us, whether financially or otherwise, tends to be a good deal. Examining issues through our eyes and our work is one of the most promising ways to improve our world.
Try it sometime and see what happens.