On Stoicism and Journalism

Stoicism. Journalists need more of it. That was my Pop Idols epiphany last week. (Thanks to Derek Sivers and his great reading list that catalyzed my further exploration of this subject.)

Let me backtrack and explain.

The Pop Idols: 
On Saturday I was part of a four-person jury evaluating the final project submissions of 11 Asian students completing a Diploma in Multimedia Journalism at Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism at Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines. Working journalists all, from as far afield as Tibet, Japan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India, who had tackled the course in modules over the past year while continuing their day jobs. (Great kudos to them. And to  the ACFJ, which is providing such a much-needed course.) Each person would introduce their project in person, presented on some sort of digital page with text, audio, video, illustrations, etc. Then they would sit upfront nervously while we jury members each pulled on our headphones and explored their stories on our individual laptops, before returning our focus to them for somewhat of a cross-examination. It was brutal from the outset, and it rarely wavered from that critical tone. The focus was always on how each could be improved, with (in retrospect) far too little commendation on what was good. (I need to learn from the Toastmasters’ evaluation methodology to improve my own performance in this regard.)

The Stoicism: 
We tend to think of stoic calm. I’d always imagined this meant suppressing the emotions. Being less of a fully rounded human being. I certainly would not have thought it applied to somebody who was adept at Maslowian self-actualisation. But the Stoics of old regarded passion in a different light to that of today. As I am beginning to understand it now, they weren’t against feelings; it was simply the destructive emotions that result from errors in judgement that they wanted to be free of. (No more “abandoning ourselves to the lure and pull of ‘externals’, over which we have no control, held to ransom by feelings and emotions that the world at large stirs up in us,” explains Dr Keith Seddon in his summary Stoics on the Passions.

We too want our journalists to be free of those destructive emotions. But we also want journalists who actually give a shit. There were (fortunately only) one or two on Saturday who really seemed to have done the least work they could to get by. Their stories were thin, and they didn’t seem that concerned. No embarrassment. More of an arrogance: they just obviously didn’t feel that this was that important. I felt galled by this attitude. (Now there’s my passion getting in the way again!)

Grit, on the other hand. Now there’s a thing. (In her TED Talk last month, Angela Duckworth pointed to this as a better indicator of success than factors such as IQ, family income, or pretty much any other variable.) It was inspiring on Saturday to see so many journalists who had thrown heart and soul into their projects. We were shown beautiful, bold, courageous and surprising stories, angles and treatments. There were certainly more positively passionate storytellers in evidence than slackers.

But the passion… When the (to my mind) most brilliant person on the day received criticism from our jury, he seemed to crack. I felt for him. I took his side. But I worry. We need stoic journalists. Those who will invest a great deal of work and enthusiasm in a story, and then will not give up too easily, or be too overcome by anger and frustration when it’s not immediately appreciated or they’re not given the credit they think they deserve. Journalists with self-control and fortitude.

That journalist was telling an important story. And telling it beautifully, lyrically, and with complexity. There are so many stories in the future that require his delicate, detailed and nuanced touch. His emotional approach must be sustainable.

THE KEY CONCEPTS. The drums I kept on beating. 
The concepts I found myself coming back to over and over again in these 11 assessments all pertained to Stoicism. To rationality. To logic. To determination.

1. Ask the hard questions. I saw a delightful and much-needed enthusiasm for telling the untold stories. Many of the projects focussed on little-known people groups. But invariably I got the impression that the journalist had become so enamoured with the interviewees and so compassionate about their situations, that they had lost any sense of objectivity. I suspect that many had used outward forms of friendship to get their subjects to relax and to speak, but were then reluctant to compromise that new-found ‘friendship’ by asking the difficult questions or those that might seem impolite.

2. What is the context? Individual stories need to be put into context, often with facts and figures for substantiation. Is this one interviewee or people group representative of broader political, religious or economic issues? Are they typical or are they outliers? How? Why?

3. Are we so focussed on storytelling that we’ve lost the essence of journalism?  The “five Ws” often seemed in short supply, both at micro and macro levels. Often an entire story didn’t answer two or more of these important questions. But little things like missing photo captions could also mean that more questions were left unanswered. Why is this picture here? Why is it relevant? 

4. Does the form fit? Some stories were necessarily told in linear fashion. A scrolling format is perfect for this. With the New York Times gravitating towards more of its Snow Fall design, this was the preferred mode of presentation. But it was not always appropriate. Some stories simply are web-like, and need to be presented in that type of format. Or at least have lateral links that allow one to have access to further information on a subject, without losing the overall story.

To my mind, only THEN, after all of the above, do we get to issues of technical quality. (Of which more really deserves to be said. It is impressive that this course and these students have achieved the levels of mastery that they have in such a short time. Much respect.)

It’s form and function all over again.