I distinctly remember the farewell editorial written by Annie Zak, editor-in-chief of TKS during the 2010-2011 school year. The editorial boiled down to Annie’s belief that we often end up pissing people off in our line of work, and that this is okay, provided you piss off the right people. There was much discussion in the office following the publication of this editorial. Some felt that Annie was saying that the goal of journalism is to make people angry. Others, perhaps jaded by working at a largely thankless job, raised fictional glasses and cursed the ever-evil “system.”
At the time, I was not sure what to think. I had already begun developing sources around campus (note to new-ish reporters: do this early), and I didn’t want to antagonize them. But I was still young and still had dreams of “changing the world” — or the campus, at least — with my writing. Two years later, older and (I hope) more seasoned, I think I understand what Annie was getting at. Journalism is about accountability. It’s about asking uncomfortable questions and printing the (often uncomfortable) answers.
There’s a quote on the wall of the Newseum in Washington, D.C. that I love: “A free press, at its best, reveals the truth.” The truth is complicated, messy, and rarely universally flattering. But when the truth involves the public good, the public has a right to know, and the journalist has a responsibility to tease out the meaning hidden behind layers of bureaucracy, spin and conflicting accounts.
There are several instances that come to mind when I think of the reasons why I stuck with the newspaper for four years. The first occurred during my sophomore year concerning a piece I wrote on what was then called the Phonathon program. Unlike everything that had been written about the program thus far, my article was not overwhelmingly positive. There was considerable backlash. But more than that, I remember a girl I did not know coming up to me in the mailroom.
“Didn’t you write that article on Phonathon?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“That was really great,” she said. “Thank you.”
I later found out that the student calling program, as it is now known, had loosened its requirements on asking people who are unemployed to donate money four times. This was a very small victory, and I use the word “victory” acknowledging that it situates me, the reporter, in an adversarial position relative to the college.
This is often what it has felt like over the years: the college’s job is to promote itself, which does not always coincide with my job as a journalist. There was a harried phone conversation that occurred with the Office of Communications and the president after we printed the news of the college’s deficit in the fall. But whenever I have been the most depressed about my job, I have been reminded that what we do as journalists can, and does, have an impact on what is happening around us.
I don’t want to be a journalist, which may be shocking coming from the former editor-in-chief of the paper. Why devote four years of my life — and far more hours than I was paid for — to something that I do not want to do professionally?
Because I believe in accountability. Because I believe in the power of the printed word to ignite discussion and bring about change. Because I love my college community enough to see its scars and want to address them. Because I believe in transparency and the right to know. Because I believe that information is the most valuable possession a person can have.
My editorial family at TKS is made up of some of the strongest people I know. They have taken on one of the toughest tasks — teasing out the truth — and do it week in, week out, with very little thanks. To those with whom I have worked, know that you have mine. To those who read the paper I have been lucky enough to lead: knowledge is a tool. Hoard it and wield it smartly.
To the Knox College community: you are incredibly privileged to be at a place where transparency is valued. Never take that for granted. And never think that it is a perfect system. Share your thoughts on how it can be improved, and hold each other accountable.
Speaking of privilege, it has truly been mine to head the best small college newspaper in Illinois. I sincerely thank you all for your support, your criticisms and the hours you have allowed me to spend interviewing you.
Anna Meier ’13