September 01, 2005

Finding Purpose in Journalism

The morning news today brought more tales of tragedy, devastation and personal loss. At the kitchen table, early, the night's darkness still lingering outside, I read in the papers about the deepening horror in New Orleans, the all-too-human parade of death in Iraq and, closer to home, the wanton shooting of a retired 67-year-old nurse in a drug-ridden neighborhood of the Bay Area.

A picture of refugees in New Orleans pressed face to face as they struggled, uncharitably, to gain seats on buses evacuating them from the city reminded me of a photograph I took long ago in my first experience with journalism - and of my father, who died a year ago today.

In 1974, as part of the infamous Patty Hearst kidnapping, Hearst's father acceded to a demand of the kidnappers and paid for a food giveaway in a poor, black neighborhood in San Francisco. Thousands of people showed up and, as bags of food were tossed to the throng from the back of trucks, order broke down, the scene turned violent and people clawed at one another for loaves of bread. I was there, a journalism student, my small Pentax camera loaded with Tri-X, filling the two rolls of film I had brought. The pictures I made were amateurish and long gone, but the roiling scene, and especially the images of those desperate, angry faces, stay with me. I knew even then, instinctively, that within those faces lie the purposes of journalism.

I don't think those purposes have changed a bit in these last three decades. And, perhaps as journalists, especially newspaper journalists with their proud traditions, can find direction and purpose and passion in the faces the morning news - the all-day news - brings us from New Orleans and from our local communities, where sweet, beloved old ladies who want their grandchildren to be able to live without finding needles on the street are gunned down in their gardens.

This sounds idealistic, I know, and perhaps also a bit dated in an age when journalists and analysts, myself included, talk of innovation and change and "product." But idealism is a powerful force and newspapers need to not only work on innovation and change and "product" but continue find ways to invigorate and unleash idealism within their ranks in order to create a journalism of purpose and not just one of market. (I am sure the staffs of the Gulf Coast newspapers - from the flooded Times-Picayune in New Orleans to the Sun Herald in Biloxi are coursing with purpose right now.)

And my father? What has this to do with him? When I think of the good work journalism can do and the powerful forces that pulled me into it, I think of him because he was proud of what I did. I was young and still adrift in 1974, a condition that separated me from my father, a man with seven children and a wife to feed who had neither the time nor the patience for dalliance on life's direction. When journalism gave me a purpose, and a career, he and I became closer. I came to understand his world, and he mine.

That's what good journalism is good for - understanding, connection, communication. As we struggle to reinvent our news organizations for an uncertain future, I believe these core purposes will help us find our way.

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Posted by Tim Porter at September 1, 2005 08:17 AM