Journalists need to remember their humanity
For the 10 years that he was editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the late William F. Woo wrote a weekly column about the issues of the day. When he lost his job at the Post-Dispatch in 1996, he lost his St. Louis audience, but he gained a new one: the 15 students in his journalism classes at Stanford University. A collection of his weekly letters to students, Letters from the Editor, was published last fall by the University of Missouri Press.
Dear Students: We have talked a lot about journalism as it is and should be, and we have talked some about what it is to be a journalist. From everything I’ve said, you may understand that for me the journalist in you arises from the person you are. I hope this little story gives you a sense of how I came to feel this way.
When I visited my father’s grave a few years ago in Hong Kong, one of my brothers laid a newspaper by his stone marker instead of flowers. My father was an editor, and a good one. When the book is written about journalism in China, K.T. Woo will be more than a footnote.
He was a much different editor and a much different man than I have been. But despite the different lives we lived and the different human beings we became, we were both journalists, animated by the same adrenaline rushes that come with fast-breaking news. We were both editors of large papers.
And yet, at the core we represented contrasting perspectives on journalism and life. My father saw them as quite separate, and everything in life had to yield to the imperative of the story. I see life and journalism as one, indivisible though one is subordinated to the other.
On the night I was born, half of what was then called Great Western Road in Shanghai was in flames. My father was the editor of the China Press. He dropped my mother off on the curb, outside the Shanghai Women's Hospital, and sped away to direct the coverage of the fire. She made her way inside alone.
A few years later, the war came. Shanghai was occupied by Japanese troops. Mother and I went to a concentration camp briefly. Later, the Americans bombed Shanghai, and you could watch the planes high above and then see the smoke from where the bombs had hit. Then, after a few more years, it was over.
By then, my parents' marriage was also over, and my mother got us passage on a converted troopship – the S.S. Marine Lynx -- back to the United States. Everyone was at the pier to see us off -- grandparents, uncles and aunts, servants and friends. Everyone but my father.
When I asked where he was, someone said, at the office. He was very busy. That’s the way it was in the newspaper business, they said.
For much of my life, I wanted to be like that, to be part of something so significant and so grand. In time, I came to see things differently. I do not know exactly when they began to change, but much of it had to do with the fact that I became a father. Late as it was, I was rejoining the human race. Those questions that had been answered on the side of journalism now stood revealed as not only monstrous, but ludicrous: Cover a fire or attend the birth of your first child? Be so busy putting out the next day's paper that you cannot say goodbye to your son as he goes across the ocean?
Rarely are we asked to choose between betraying journalism or our humanity -- but if the decision ever comes, I know where I would like to stand, not on the side of news but on that of humanity.
Journalism is not an end in itself, but grows out of the larger life we experience as human beings. If the end of journalism were journalism, then it would be a self-contained enterprise, existing outside of society. But the end of journalism is no more doing journalism than, say, the end of the surgery is only to cut people apart instead of saving lives.
The end of journalism, I believe, is to serve people in the most profound way possible. All public policy has a human effect. It will be your job to illuminate this and give your readers reliable information, arrived at by backbreaking intellectual labor and formed by judgment and guided by integrity, so that men and women can make the decisions they need to live as free human beings.
So you will need intelligence and experience to do this kind of work and also a sense of your own humanity. I simply do not believe that bad people, in the way that Socrates might have used the words, can be good journalists.
Whether you work in the news for 40 years as I did, or whether you do it for much shorter, the fact remains that you will be a journalist for only a part of your life. But you will be a human being as long as you live, and at the end of it all, the question of what kind of a journalist you have been pales beside that of what kind of man, what kind of woman, you were.
Excerpted from Letters from the Editor: Lessons on Journalism and Life by William F. Woo. Edited by Philip Meyer and published by the University of Missouri Press in 2007. To order this book, please call (800) 828-1894 or online at http://press.umsystem.edu or www.amazon.com.