- Nick Lawton
Dear Journalism Students
I will never forget when the President of the United States, someone I was taught from childhood to respect, inspired an entire hangar of people to turn and boo me for slights I’d never committed. I will never forget when a university student ran up behind me at the end of my live shot, cornering me against a brick wall, screaming full force mere inches from my face. I will never forget when a father pushed his stroller past me on the street while I was filming video, and when his son asked who I was, he said: “The media. We hate the media.” The son, brimming innocence, looked up to his father with big eyes and repeated: “Hate the media?” Then, you watch horrifying images unfold before you as a gunman mows through glass and lives at the office of a Maryland newspaper. When you are thrown in moments like these nearly every day, common sense would stare you in the face and tell you to stop.
A part of your brain and your heart compels you to cut your losses and run. Run to where it’s safe. Find something else to do. Why journalism, anyway? “Because,” you’ll find yourself saying back, “I have grown too much to turn back now.” Journalism will be more than anything you read in textbooks, bigger than any lecture in your classroom. Journalism will be your teacher, your tormentor, your savior. Journalism will be a life all its own. For you. Journalism will teach you fear the first time you see a trail of blood down a street, the first time you hear a gunshot crack through the air and the first moment you see a body being wheeled out under a sheet. When a thousand-acre wildfire sends up a carpet of smoke so black it blots out the sun, you’ll fear for those around you and fear that you cannot stop it. When someone with something to hide screams at you to get off their property or pulls a gun, you will feel that fear again. But journalism also teaches you to wield your fear. When chaos explodes around you and your task is to explain it, you learn to take a breath and sharpen your fear into focus. Just as a knife needs a whetstone, your focus will only come with stressor after stressor. You will stumble. You will slip from time to time, but never forget that each faltering is finding a foothold to a higher place. Journalism will teach you perspective. You will learn that blanket assumptions wrap the wool over everyone’s eyes. But the wool comes off your own the moment a firefighter connects their self-contained breathing apparatus on you and all you hear is your own hissing breath as you charge into their training flames. You stop believing all police officers are callous when one tells you how they heard two clicks while staring down the barrel of a gun, and all they thought of after the arrest was how much they wanted to see their sister. You’re no longer convinced that the war is over for any veteran when a single prescription is the difference between seeing their son’s game and being bedridden. And when your assumptions are broken, you see everyone in a different light. You connect. You empathize. And these people who need your help can now trust you with their stories. With those stories, Journalism teaches you the value of life. You stop thinking that any family matters less than another the moment you hear a mother scream for her dead child. It comes from a pit of darkness in the soul that freezes you in place. I wish I could say that you can forget a sound borne of such unimaginable pain. And then, when you have to do the unthinkable and ask that suffering mother for an interview, I pray that you will use the empathy that you have learned. Showing kindness in a moment of weakness leads to a moment of hope when a mother entrusts you with the story of her child’s life. Are you still with me? Because now I’m about to tell you the best part. In the midst of sorrow, Journalism teaches you the value of hope. When your waders crash into floodwaters, you will see that race, religion and political allegiance is washed away in favor of life, as a retired firefighter serves homemade red beans and rice to evacuees and a fleet of volunteers sails into the unknown to rescue anyone they can find. Journalism will teach you how we must never forget hope. And with that hope, Journalism will make you the happiest you’ve ever been. It makes you cry when the empty food pantry you reported from had dozens of Thanksgiving turkeys donated the next day. It stops your heart when a grieving mother grabs one of your hands in both of hers. It renders you speechless when someone who risked their life for your country....thanks YOU.
Journalism teaches you that there is so much good left in the world, and it gives you the chance to help unlock it. So then, what do you do with all you have learned in these moments of trial? You forget the boos and jump down to the barricade, telling someone in a MAGA hat that their children are adorable and you’d love a chance to hear their thoughts. You raise both your hands in placation, apologizing to the screaming student and asking them how they’re feeling and, all of a sudden, they draw back. If you treat your competitors with respect as well, they’ll even step in and bring the student back. You bite back your tongue as the father passes you by, knowing that for every one person with only hatred to teach, there are dozens of others who need your help. You are about to take your first step into a calling that is bigger than yourself. And there’s a piece of public service with your name on it. We’re here with you. Get ready to grow.