I love journalism but I hate asking uncomfortable questions

Have I chosen the right field? Or am I too shy?

By Cary Tennis
Published December 7, 2006 11:59AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm a journalism grad student at a pretty good j-school, but I feel more and more like I've made a huge mistake.

The thing is, I'm shy. Or rather, I'm deeply afraid of people -- of talking to them, of asking them nosy questions about their lives. Left to my own devices, I'd stay in my room, do nothing and never go out.

When I decided to try a journalism career, I thought it would be a good antidote to these sorts of tendencies. And sometimes it is. On good days, it's pretty exhilarating to be able to learn about all different kinds of things. I feel like a member of the human race, engaged and even a little powerful.

But on the bad days -- generally the days that involve any sort of uncomfortable questions, or even worse when I have to ask uncomfortable questions of a source I've come to like -- I just wish I could disappear, die, erase myself. And I'm nauseated by the thought that my work will appear under my name -- that everyone will know I'm responsible for this crap, that they will tear me to shreds for my ignorance, my biases, my moronic misinterpretations of their lives.

I suppose I should have a tougher skin about this kind of stuff, but I don't, even if I pretend I do when I'm doing the work. And the trouble is, cowardice like this breeds laziness. My fear of talking to people leads to formulaic writing, where I just call people until I have enough usable quotes and don't dig deeper for the heart of the story. It's production-line stuff.

The crazy, sad part is that I get good grades at school. Makes me wonder what their criteria are. I know, though, that journalism needs better than that. It needs people who aren't afraid to do the job, who bring intellect and judgment to bear on the problems of the day. It needs braver people than me. But if most of me wants to run and hide, a part still knows that I have to succeed at this because it's the only way to save my soul. It's the only way that I get past this shell I live in and experience what it means to be human. This fear of people is my dragon, this part of me says, and no one else is going to slay it for me.

Again, though, that's just part of me. Most of me just wants to sink into some cosmic tar pit and never be seen again. And yeah, I've dealt with depression for several years. I get help -- therapy, and I used to be on medication and may go back on it. But practically speaking, the fear is there whether I'm depressed or not.

Anyway, you're a journalist. How do I know if I'm cut out for this? How do I get past the enormous fact of my inadequacy and do my job? Or should I seek a different career -- something wordy, say, but with less exposure and responsibility?

FYI, I'm a guy in my early 30s making a career shift.

Shivering Scribbler

Dear Shivering Scribbler,

I am a lot like you. I am powerfully drawn to journalism, yet I dread doing certain things that are often required of journalists. It has been a struggle all my life. Yet, as you say, I am a journalist. Did I ever solve these problems? No. Did they hurt me in my career? Yes. Did I persist? Yes. Why? For the reasons you state so well.

Having persisted and survived with my fears and eccentricities intact, I have some observations.

It is wonderful to work in the field of journalism, and in that field there are many kinds of jobs. Some journalism jobs require you to ask uncomfortable questions of seemingly decent people, questions whose implication is that you do not believe or trust the person you are talking to. You must take a somewhat adversarial role simply to get the story. You must cross certain boundaries that in much of civic and cultural life we do not cross.

Some people find this easy to do. Perhaps their belief in the importance of what they are doing is so powerful that it mutes their doubts and scruples. Perhaps to them it is a game in which each side has volunteered, in which each party is equally knowing. To be sure, the discomfort of conducting interviews lies along a continuum -- no one, I would assume, is completely comfortable asking certain questions of certain people, nor should any interview be completely comfortable.

But there are many kinds of journalism jobs. The kind of journalism job in which you call up people you do not know and ask impertinent questions is only one kind.

Let's use my case as an object lesson. I have been powerfully drawn to journalism since I was young. I have done many different kinds of journalism. I have sat in front of the telephone knowing I need to make a difficult phone call and thinking up excuses not to call. I have hung back at press conferences consumed with shyness, my head filled with questions but too fearful to ask. I have been charmed and intimidated by sources. I have felt sorry for sources, in ways that prevented me from asking all the questions that needed to be asked. I have sometimes had to call back just to ask the difficult, unasked question.

I have reported on such topics as gay rights and racist skinheads and white supremacists, topics about which I may have large and powerful leanings, but what I am really interested in is individual people and why they do the things they do. If I interview someone, I am going to relate to him, no matter who it is. That sometimes makes it difficult to participate in the current cultural dialogue. To take one example: I tend to see political behavior as primitive and tribal, motivated by the need to run with the pack and the lust for blood and victory. Seeing it this way makes it difficult to seriously engage the intellectual arguments put forth about, say, stem cell research or "intelligent design." The arguments seem secondary to the tribal struggle. But that's just me. I know the issues are important. But I can't help it. I look at politicians and I see monkeys screaming.

But even a person like me can find interesting jobs to do in the field of journalism. There are many jobs that do not involve direct interviews with sources. Some of these are writing jobs and some are not. They are all interesting. The thing is, you have to learn a skill. If you are in graduate school, I hope you are learning a skill.

When I was pretty young I wanted to be a jazz musician. There was a guy down in South Florida, a local hero in the jazz world, a multi-instrumentalist named Ira Sullivan. We young guys would follow him around. We idolized him. We wanted to be him. Learn a trade, boys, he would say. Get a skill.

After a difficult and rocky path that involved numerous failures at journalism, I finally got humble and learned a skill. I learned to be a copy editor. I worked five years in a dull corporate job doing technical manuals about oil tankers. That's how I got my job at Salon. Sure, I was a left-leaning local journalist who knew lots of the same people and talked the same language. But I got the job because I could do something useful.

For most of my career at Salon I have been a copy editor. It was a good feeling to be doing something useful at Salon. It was a struggle to be humble and just do the job, because I'm what we addicts call an egomaniac with an inferiority complex. But being on the copy desk was good for me. And it led to this column -- not because I thought I was something special, but because they were having trouble finding the right person and it occurred to me that I might be able to help out.

This is the truth of it: I never had any luck in journalism until I stopped trying to be a star and started trying to be useful to others.

There are many ways to be useful to others in journalism, and to participate in the intense, exhilarating drama of it, without doing the particular work of hard, investigative research utilizing personal interviews with original sources. There are many, many other things to do. If you look at the stories in Salon you will see that only some of them involve direct interviews with sources.

You say you have taken this on because you thought if you were forced to confront your demons you would overcome them. I do not have much faith in this view. Your reluctance to cross certain boundaries of civility in interpersonal discourse does not seem to me to be a demon. Rather, it seems to be your nature. In other cultures and other times it would be known as circumspection, tact, discretion. It does not seem to me to be something to overcome. It is rather an asset. So I suggest rather than trying to overcome it you make use of it.

Calling people up and asking impertinent questions may get easier. But it will not cure you of your discretion and civility. My guess is that if you choose jobs that will force you to violate your own sense of propriety it will only invite failure. So if I were you, I would find ways to participate in the drama that play to your strengths -- your idealism, your passion, your intelligence, your belief in the mission of journalism and your skill with words.

One of the first things that comes to mind, if you do want to write, is to try and find a field that does not involve the partisan antagonism of politics, the private tragedies of crime or the hotly tribal warfare of culture and religion. Frankly, I'm not completely sure there is one, but I can tell you this: I have written about crime and I have written about entertainment, and entertainment involves fewer really uncomfortable conversations. The people you meet while writing about entertainment are mostly hawking product. They aren't on death row, they didn't kill anyone, and things are a little less tense. Hanging around with entertainment publicists can be sordid, but they offer several kinds of mineral water. And it is possible, in writing about movies and books, to engage important ideas without a lot of uncomfortable adversarial interviews. It can get ethically tricky, but weapons are not usually involved.

Basically I agree with you: Journalism is irresistible. It is a way to participate in the world that is uniquely fascinating, lively, heroic, intense. I hope you can find a way to participate that does not violate your fundamental sense of decency and appropriateness.

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