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Learning To Be a Journalist

By Jessica E. Vascellaro

Many newspaper reporters will tell you that now is not the time to enter their business. Circulations continue to plummet as new and old readers head to the web. Several leading journalists face jail time for refusing to disclose the names of confidential sources.

Recently, reporters have made the problem worse by humiliating themselves. Several top news organizations have disgraced the industry by publishing stories that were inaccurate or incomplete.

These incidents rightly enrage a public, about half of which, according to a 2005 Pew research center poll, claim they do not believe what they read in newspapers. If few seem to trust journalists, why have I never been more excited about being one?

To begin, I find it exhilarating to enter a profession at a time where there is work to be done. Print media, in particular, must undergo a substantial revolution to beat its online adversaries, and I want to raise my pen in the fight.

I believe that the world will not turn its back on the type of investigative and analytical reporting that informs millions of readers every day. If kept, the standards of the nation’s best papers are our last chance to stop the march of cable television, blogs, and other media rumor mills. When the dust from the hype over nontraditional media settles, I am confident that daily newspapers, with more customized, more investigative, and more accurate, stories, will still be standing.

But my passion for journalism is deeper than my desire to bear witness to change. I want to be a reporter because journalism is the career for someone who never wants to leave school.

As much as the last four years have taught me, they have primarily revealed that a true education consists of trying to answer what you do not know, not regurgitating what you do. Journalists spend their lives identifying new questions and answering them. They are professional students.

As a Harvard undergraduate I learned that, unlike studying for a test, the process of unveiling one’s ignorance is never complete. For every class I entered at Harvard, I left with more questions than I had when I walked in. I enrolled in Ec 10 wanting to know how interest rates affect prices and left, two semesters later, wondering why poor countries do not grow faster than rich countries and why devaluing currencies may not give a trade a boost. I walked into an introductory neuroscience class eager to learn how memory works only to be left wondering why I can remember the name of my kindergarten teacher but not what I had for lunch yesterday.

While some may find this lack of understanding unsatisfying, I find it fascinating. Questions left unanswered are not the sign of a failed education, but the start of a good one. The ability to identify holes in what we know and frame questions to answer them is the most valuable skills tuition can buy.

It is also the objective that motivates any journalist. A reporter’s best work is not fed to them through press releases. It stems from their desire to answer their own questions, such as why some schools systems fail and others succeed, or why everybody is buying an iPod. A good journalist presents a new angle to a problem that some never knew existed.

Before I learned this lesson as a reporter, I learned it at Harvard. My undergraduate education taught me that facts are indispensable but originality lies in finding the holes between them. The best classes I took placed a premium on work that took a new approach to an old question. Instead of asking why the French Revolution happened, I was taught to ask why an English revolution did not. The question was inspired by what I did not know, not what I did. Answering it required a different level of analysis and originality. Before you can answer a provoking question, you have to find one.

I may never enter a classroom as a student again. But as a journalist, I will spend the rest of my life trying to learn enough about a topic to educate someone else about it. In finding and answering these questions, I will be forced to embrace, and challenge, my ignorance. Harvard has taught me that the most interesting problems always lie in the unanswered questions.

Thankfully, it has also given me a few to try to answer.

Jessica E. Vascellaro is a history concentrator in Currier House. She was an executive editor of The Crimson in 2004.

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