Being a journalist takes spirit and grit
Cyclops! If any mortal asks you how
your eye was mutilated and made blind
say that Odysseus, the city-sacker,
Laertes’ son, who lives in Ithaca,
destroyed your sight.
-The Odyssey, Homer / Translated by Emily Wilson
Journalists are a bit like Odysseus: We climb the masts of our ships and shout important information.
In Homer’s Odyssey, one of the oldest Western texts, Odysseus faces many trials on his long journey home to be reunited with his wife on the Greek island of Ithaca. Along the way he ends up on the island of giants, where he encounters the unwelcoming cyclops who outmatches the sailors in size and strength.
The cyclops traps Odysseus and his men in his cave dwellings and begins eating them one by one. But Odysseus tricks the giant and gouges out the giant’s only eye. Once the Cyclops is blind, Odysseus and the last of his soldiers slip out of the cave.
Odysseus could easily have left the island silently but made a spectacle of his departure, taunting the Cyclops as he left. He wanted the world to know what he had done. In doing so, he disregarded the wrath of Poseidon, the powerful god of the sea, who was the Cyclops’ father.
Many of the best scoops have invoked the wrath of an angry god, accidentally or intentionally. Odysseus (lacking Twitter) shouted his message out into the world for the audience of one that needed to hear it.
Odysseus is an imperfect hero: dishonest, and a cunning trickster. But so, too, was the Cyclops he was forced to defeat. The type of journalism that gets to the truth sometimes requires a trick or two, oftentimes a psychological trick to build trust. Oftentimes the power of our interview subjects is greater than our own, and this may justify the methods we use to expose their secrets.
Like Odysseus, journalists are imperfect heroes facing the cyclops of our times: the fake news chants that ring out our impending doom.
Not all journalists are out to maim their adversary in the same way Odysseus did. But the work does require that we climb a mast and shout out what we've found out. At times we do this in complete disregard of the personal and professional consequences to ourselves because we believe it is right. We have the courage to make public that which remains uncovered. We brave the waves.
Journalism at its core is a challenge to the status quo. When looking for scoops, we often look for the outlier or the person who bucks the trend: the man who travels the world by boat to see his dying father, for example. At times that meant scooping a whodunnit in a murder case (trying to solve the case ahead of the police) or the Charles Manson exclusive from his jail cell.
Whether it's politicians' policies we report on or new technology that’s permeating society, journalists try to unearth the next big thing, preferably before anybody else and above all truthfully.
Our work is not violent and our intention is not always to maim or discredit, but we are looking for impact, both positive and negative. Positive for those we stick up for and negative for those we takedown. Some journalists are willing to accept notoriety if what they find challenges the status quo in a fundamental way. It takes spirit and grit.
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