The Serendipitous Nature of Daily Journalism
By Dennis Chamberlin
When I first heard about the opportunity to participate in this project there was no hesitation on my part. I spend most of my time in the classroom these days and, to be honest, I miss the serendipitous nature of daily journalism.
What I miss, in particular, are the days when you head out with an idea in mind and experience changes along the way. The story might become difficult to complete, or an even better story might fall in your lap. It is all about observing what happens around you and knowing when to pause and ask a few questions.
Last week I made a visit to a local organization that helps people with housing problems. I showed up unannounced and left a couple hours later with a few story ideas that excite me. Stories to be told in my community that are better than what I might have conjured had I been a novelist.
For the past couple of semesters I’ve assigned my photojournalism and multimedia students topics about the economy. I was surprised how the first round of stories turned out. Despite my prodding and feedback, students mostly gravitated toward stories showing people doing just fine. If you analyzed the complete class output you might think all is splendid in our small Midwestern town (despite having the second highest poverty level in Iowa).
I couldn’t fathom why students were not going deeper into the story. The answer turned out to be that they were afraid to talk to people from a different demographic–a telling characteristic, which prompted me to reflect.
My first four years as journalist at The Denver Post were far more instructive than I ever could have imagined as a student. I have just completed four years as a professor on the tenure track at Iowa State University, providing me with an opportunity to observe our society through the eyes of my students–an experience no less instructive than my years at The Post. In Denver I learned lessons from the people I met on assignment. In Ames I’m learning from the students in my classroom.
My photojournalism students submit their entire material to me so I can see how they approached the assignment. One of the unexpected elements of this requirement is that I can see how the photographer interacts and relates to the subject.
My students, like ones who came before them, mirror the concerns of their peers but are also products of our society, reflecting values within all of us. Looking at the out-takes from their assignments I see that we prefer to take refuge in our immediate circle of friends, family and self than wander in diverse or uncertain surroundings.
The world out there is full of unknowns. It can be scary. It requires us to interact with people who may be different in lifestyle, social class, ethnicity or culture. That can unsettle newcomers, especially if we send them on street assignments in unexplored locales. But this experience is perhaps the single most important thing we as journalists do to uncover stories everyone needs to hear.
Beginning journalists have a responsibility to get out of the confines of the classroom and even the comfort of the newsroom and learn about the world first hand. They cannot do it vicariously through YouTube videos or Google searches.
By being journalists, students have an alibi to walk into the lives of others in ways that most of us are afraid to do.
That is why I’m looking forward to next week at The Des Moines Register. I want to get beneath the surface of my community and tell stories with my camera and audio recorder (my new tool) reflecting what is happening in these uncertain economic times.
Even now I’ve noticed how I have begun to come out of the cocoon I unconsciously built during the past few years, preoccupied with work and family responsibilities. I now have a reason to strike up conversations with people whom I see everyday, but never took the time to know, listening to and documenting their stories.
Good journalism demands that we become engaged members of society. You can learn to understand others, and as a bonus you can learn more about yourself.