Journalism School: An Interested Stranger
At this point, I can't tell whether I'm exhausted or in a constant high verging on ecstatic delirium. Such is the state of many graduates at the Columbia J-School, a top school of journalism in New York City, betokened the epitome of the practice by some, and a waste of time and money by others.
In the early weeks of August, we were told that journalists today are more important than ever. Distrust in the media and in government is at an all-time high. People don't know who to believe, though they do know not to believe those people, the people on the other side of the fence. To counteract this crisis, the country needs journalists. Journalists with integrity, fearlessness, and unflappable reporting skills. And Twitter accounts.
The arhythmic undertone of this call to arms is footsteps against concrete, "thank you for taking my calls," and clacking against keyboards.
On a given day, we traverse New York City in what from above must resemble an unwound ball of yarn strewn across the floor—a very dirty floor. Asking questions, sussing out stories, listening to strangers, interrogating bureaucrats, we press against social norms and personal insecurities in the pursuit of information. Moving too fast to register how incredible it is that a mere seven weeks ago many of us had never done anything close to journalism.
Such as it is, yesterday I interviewed seven people in 6 hours. Five of those people I identified on the High Line, a long park on aboveground train tracks, around 11:00 am. Aware that workers would soon step out for lunch, I pinpointed those meanderers staring off into the distance, seated and solitary, and near static as tourists came and went between the perennial flowers and grasses, iced coffees in hand and shimmering under an unseasonable autumn sun.
My assignment was to ask as much personal, identifying information as I could and then ask each person the same question. My question was: "What are the challenges of living in a multicultural space, like NYC?"
A 58-year-old black man from Guyana told me that he's lived in the US for 26 years. He is struck by how fast everyone moves. "You cannot be tolerant and accept other people if you are always in a rush," he said. We must sit down, listen to each other, and understand. "The other day I was walking from the train to my house. When I got to the stairs, I noticed I was walking fast, trying to keep up with everyone," he recounted, and wondering, said, "Why am I rushing? I live two blocks away from the train."
A 23-year-old Dominican-American woman from the Bronx, a recent graduate of biology at SUNY New Paltz, had just left orientation at Anthropologie. Her mind was elsewhere though. She was thinking about her boyfriend back in New Paltz and her family in DR.
"When I was in high school I used to only hang out with people who looked like me," she confessed. "Even now I don't feel comfortable around people who dress in a particular way, like Wall Street types. I don't belong. There is a gap. And part of it is in my head. Part of it is in theirs."
Quoting MadMen, my reporting instructor once said: "You'd be surprised by what people will tell an interested stranger." Whatever is noble in journalism must spring from taking a prolonged moment to be for another no one and someone, all at once.
Seven weeks later, it's the best description I've heard of what a journalist is. An interested stranger.