M. Alex Johnson – Journalist at Large

An analog journalist in a digital world

The challenge of being a young journalist

with 3 comments

I envy the newly minted journalists entering our profession today. The tools at their disposal are so much more powerful that they were when I broke in 28 years ago at The Macon Telegraph in Georgia, which were: A notepad. And a pen.

But there’s one thing I wouldn’t trade from that era for all the avenues open to today’s younger journalists: the privilege of learning my craft in relative obscurity.

At The Telegraph, the circulation was a shade under 50,000. That was about the largest number of people I could reach. Today’s young journalist can immediately reach an audience that encompasses anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

That must be terrifying.

I’m reminded of this by the outrage that greeted the publication of a headline on ESPN.com over the weekend. It used an ethnic slur on a story about the New York Knicks’ out-of-nowhere star, Jeremy Lin, the first American-born player of Chinese descent to play in the NBA.

Before ESPN had issued its statement saying it had fired the headline writer, I had already tweeted:

Sure enough, today came the full story, from the New York Daily News, which identified the headline writer as a 28-year-old night editor who sounded believable when he said the connotation hadn’t remotely crossed his mind.

“My faith is my life,” he said. “I’d love to tell Jeremy what happened and explain that this was an honest mistake.”

I’m willing to believe that. Not too long ago, I was having a discussion about the South — as a Georgian living in Washington, I’m often an object of curiosity — with a brilliant young editor who called me a “cracker,” obviously without malice. Since we were in public, I laughed it off. She was mortified when I took her aside later to gently let her know where the word “cracker,” in relation to white Southerners, comes from.

It’s what linguists call an aphaeresis, or a fore-clipped construction. It’s a clipped version “whipcracker” — in other words, a brutal slave master. She was too young to know that, having grown up in a more sensitive and progressive era than I and some of her elder colleagues had.

(It can work the other way, too. Although some people mean to insult you when they call you a “redneck,” many of us take pride in the word, which we regard as acknowledgement that we worked our way to prosperity from summers of hard labor on the farm, which left our necks sunburned.)

The racist sense of the word in ESPN’s headline hasn’t shifted. It’s still, to my ears, a hard taboo. But it’s credible to me that the ESPN writer had never once in his life heard or read it used in that sense.

The mistakes of my early years — getting the name of someone who was suing CBS News wrong, for one — were seen by a relatively small number of people. I had the luxury of learning from them and putting the lessons to use as I advanced in journalism.

Unfortunately, ESPN’s headline writer made his mistake in front of potentially millions of people, all of whom could record it for easy redistribution with the push of a button.

The trope is that it’s the old-timers like me who are scared of today’s technology. But I have less to be scared of than do the far smarter young writers and editors I work with — the ones who are supposed to be natively fluent in pixelese. I got to learn the craft of journalism during an age when a single mistake — even a bad one — wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of my career.

That’s not true today. I wish the ESPN headline writer had been given the benefit of quiet instruction and a second chance.

He wasn’t. He and all of today’s rising young journalists have every right to be petrified.

Written by Alex

February 20, 2012 at 3:43 pm

3 Responses

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  1. I wrote about this the other day. I’m 29. I’ve been called a chink plenty of times. There is NO way he didn’t know what he was doing. Also, an editor is presumably someone who reads a lot of other stuff online and would know that way, too.

    Matthew Salesses

    February 20, 2012 at 4:27 pm

  2. I’m with Matthew on this one. I’m 26, and I find it VERY hard to believe that the editor was simply unaware of history of a commonly used slur. I think it has more to do with him rushing the story to print after having a Freudian slip– perhaps in that moment he focused more on pumping out a quick little eye-catching play-on-words headline without taking five seconds to THINK about what had just been typed out. It says a lot about how knee-jerk reporting to keep up with the rest of the online landscape is becoming more of a liability to journalistic credibility.

    Tom Barclay

    February 21, 2012 at 12:35 pm

  3. [...] writing about the ESPN incident, I think Alex Johnson, an experienced journalist with MSNBC, makes an excellent point about young [...]


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