Illustration: Lindsey Wiercioch
In an interview with The Guardian, Jean Vanier, a Canadian philosopher and theologian, cited the last words of a dying prostitute to a social worker: “You have always wanted to change me, but you have never met me.” These words left a mark on a then 20- year-old me who thought she knew all there is to know in the world and was desperate to make a change.
It was those sad words that first drove me to journalism. I wanted to look at the human faces shrouded by social stereotypes. Being a journalist meant to me at the time to say yes to the privilege of encountering others.
When I was in my third year of undergraduate studies, despite my deep appreciation for my degree in accountancy, I did not have the mental strength to be an accountant for the rest of my life. I knew that I wanted to tell stories. Upon graduation, I joined Forbes Asia at its New York headquarters as an editorial intern and reporter, covering startups and occasionally, writing magazine stories.
Admittedly, despite the phrase “cover a story”, my past experience as a reporter has taught me that no story can be fully “covered”. Assembling a selection of facts already demonstrates biases. A journalist can only strive to truthfully tell the story while acknowledging his or her own subjectivity. Thus, I see it as my responsibility to research diligently and report meticulously because through my words, people’s lives are turned into stories.
It is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done. As a reporter, I had the chance to talk to people who usually would not talk to me and quite frankly, people whom I usually would not care to talk to. It was also during those months that I realised that I did not know “all there is to know in the world” and came to see beauty and hope in the fact that perhaps I could never fully know the world.
It was a breezy morning when I learned that one of the colleagues I respected the most at Forbes voted for Trump. As a journalist, my first reaction was that those media sources who sent around the notion that “all people who vote for Trump are either uneducated or stupid” should get their facts checked. Then, I was worried that knowing my colleague’s political stand would make me not able to see him in the same light as before. But I was wrong. The label “Trump supporter” failed to limit him. It could not define, not even a bit, his sincere smile that always comforted me, his witty edits that always inspired me, and his white hair, painted by age.
This is not to suggest that one’s political stand is not important. It is very important and it does reveal some of the beliefs and struggles of him as a human person. However, a vote is simply not a good enough prism through which we view, judge or even remotely understand the totality of a person. A person, after all, if you have met him or her, is not a political opinion, but a muse.
Although a good journalist does not necessarily treat his or her interviewees as muses, he or she should always aim for one thing: to meet the people behind the labels society uses to reduce the complexity and fullness of humanity. It is this habit of listening that empowers a journalist to have the courage to neither congratulate him or herself on his or her own success nor solely blame others for their failures.
Too often, we do not take the time to understand, or truly listen to, others’ life stories. To justify and rationalise our cruelty, we call these people unfathomable, weird and, essentially, insignificant. Please, let me offer you a couple of examples of “these people” – the Trump supporters, the students and lecturers who have a heavy accent when they speak English, the numerous homeless men and women on Market Street. Yes, I heard you protesting: “We are busy and do not have the time to listen to their stories!” But that’s not what I am concerned about. The real questions I want to ask are these: even if we have no exams and no essays, will we really listen to the stories about their lives? Or do we rather have a fun night at the Union, not even noticing the shivering homeless person as we head to Tesco for late night snacks? Do we really care? If the answer is no, then on what ground can we proclaim that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal?” It is thus not hatred, but indifference, that I think a good journalist should fight against.
Am I idealising journalism? Many people (including my mother) would say yes. After all, breaking news reporters are just a bunch of cold-blood observers waiting to blow things out of proportion; business reporters just look at Bloomberg terminals all day and complicate market figures and curves; political commentators… oh, what can I say to them but a famous analogy – “opinions are like assholes and everyone has one?” But while we are on this analogy, which has much wisdom to it, I’d like to bring to your attention the Australian comedian Tim Minchin’s brilliant amendment to it: opinions are indeed like assholes but the two differ significantly because “yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.”
There is a French proverb I heard some time ago – Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner – to understand everything is to forgive everything. Would you like to, at the beginning of your career path, embark on a journey to understand and thus, to forgive? If you would, you may want to give journalism, a “twilight” industry, a chance.