On Friday I had the opportunity to visit the Newseum in Washington, D.C.. Aside from being one of the coolest museums I have ever been too, this is a place that every journalist needs to visit. The exhibits were stunning, educational, and inspiring. Many of them also gave me pause, as I thought about the lengths that journalists go to getting the news to the public. As a currently unemployed freelancer, I am often frustrated with the hurdles I have to climb to make it in this business. But faced with the stories of people who have risked life and limb for the sake of the news, I felt humbled and even a little chastised.
It was in one of those moving exhibits that I met a very special person. I never got her name, but she has given me fresh inspiration in my quest to make my profession one I can be proud of.
The Journalists Memorial is not for the squeamish. There is a notebook splattered with blood, equipment from deceased newspeople, and a wall of photographs of those who have died getting the story...or for telling it. It’s a shocking and solemn place. So I was a little surprised when, nearing the end of the exhibit, as I was busily scribbling down names and dates in my Moleskine, a bespectacled girl of about 12 years approached me.
“I don’t know if I want to be a journalist anymore,” she said, her eyes wide. “But I think I should,” she added as an afterthought.
“I think you should too,” I said. I continued writing in my notebook.
“What are you writing?” she asked, peering at the page.
“I’m writing down names so that I can look up their stories afterwards.”
She considered this, then gave me a probing, quizzical look. “What do you do?”
“I’m a journalist.”
Her eyes got a little wider. “Are you a traveling journalist, or a stay-in-one-place one?”
I smiled at her description. “A traveling one, I guess.”
She was quiet then, so I asked her, “Where are you from?”
“Peru, but now we live in Virginia.”
“Cool, “ I replied.
I was trying to think of something else to say, when she blurted out, “I would make a good journalist!”
“I think you would too,” I said quietly as she walked away.
Now, thinking back on our short interaction, I wish I had said more. If I had thought about it a little longer, I would have told her so many things.
I would have told her to be brave, that there will always be things that scare her, but that she can overcome them.
I would have told her to tell the truth, even if it gets her into trouble. The most powerful movements for change have happened because there were men and women who were courageous enough to speak out and to share the facts with the world.
I would have told her to work hard. Anything worth doing is worth pouring everything you have into it.
I would have told her to write, write, write. Unless you are in the photography field, all good journalism starts with well-chosen words. If you don’t know them, you can’t use them.
And I would have told her that if she became a journalist, she would always be in good company. Some of the most generous, passionate, unique people I have had the privilege to meet have been journalists. Many of them were young people like me, just starting out. Those who were older have always been eager to offer tips, contacts, encouragement, and, when I needed it, criticism. Whether young or old, there is always a fellow journo willing to help you get the story, even when it’s dangerous.
After she left, I walked to the end of the exhibit and stood by a wall of photos, some of them too high to see properly, of journalists who have lost their lives for their stories. At the bottom of the photos were all the journalists (that we know of) who died on the job in 2010. I read their short bios and tried to hide the tears that were forming in my eyes as many people just passed by the wall on their way to the next exhibit. The men and women I read about gave everything they had to get us the news. Their sacrifice deserves respect, and at least the time it took to look at their pictures and think about how fortunate we are.
In the end, that little girl was the one who gave me the push I needed to keep going, to keep writing, to keep telling the truth. If she could walk away from that exhibit, not only still wanting to be a journalist, but certain that she could be good at it, than I can keep tapping the keys and trying to find a way to tell people’s stories.
There are stories worth risking everything for. The people whose photos graced that wall believed it. And a little girl has helped me realize that I do too.