You know, being a pre-med student, you should read up more on globulobastoma,” said my mom.
“Globulo…lastoma. Maybe bastoma? Whatever Ted Kennedy died of. As a journalist, you should be up to date on these details.”
“Mom, are you saying that correctly?”
“How would I know? I’m not a medical show junkie like you! Besides, as a journalist you should know these things.”
In the Mohan household, the phrase “you should know these things, you’re a journalist,” has taken on a new meaning. My dad drops it whenever he deems me veering towards apathy.
“Pavithru, you need to be more curious.” He particularly enjoys using that line when I don’t mirror his undying passion for Tom Friedman’s The World Is Flat and Hot, Flat, and Crowded.
In a sense, they are right. I’m not nearly as curious as I should be, not nearly as worldly as I should be, by student journalist standards.
Two of my core journalism classes this past year had weekly current events quizzes to keep us on our toes. The hope was that we’d naturally fall into a routine of staying up on our news, and not just follow one publication. We were obviously tested on local Chicago news—but also on domestic and international affairs. Skimming headlines didn’t cut it.
It seems obvious—and simple enough—that journalism students should want to be passionate “consumers of news.” After all, we can’t possibly report the news if we don’t follow it. We’d like to say we’re hardcore, but are we really capable of reading 7-8 publications a day?
I have everything from The New York Times to BBC to the Chicago Sun-Times bookmarked in my browser. I try to skim them every few days (contrary to what my mom might think). But I tend to be a little too partial to health sections—particularly that of the Times. My mom can attest to this thanks to the random gchats or emails in which I might link footage of kidney tumors killed by being frozen rather than surgically removed. Cool stuff, but not exactly the most newsworthy.
It comes as no surprise then that, to date, I haven’t gotten a perfect score on a current events quiz. These quizzes may not have been a huge part of my grade, but they did make me wonder about my own capabilities—if I can’t even stay up on existing news as a student, how am I ever going to be ahead of the curve as a professional? Over this past year, I’ve realized that as exciting as breaking news is, it just might not be my thing.
All this makes me wonder: as journalists, how much are we expected to know? Are we all supposed to have a never-ending wealth of knowledge? In these days of instant access to the Internet, does it even matter?
We’re expected to be all-knowing, to soak up every bit of information we can get our hands on—and to know how and when to use it. But we’re also told to “find our beat,” focus ourselves, research and figure out what we know better than any expert source.
It’s all a little murky to me. We should be the experts. Our job is to inform. But when writing for a specific audience, chances are they know as much, if not more. And with the advent of citizen journalism, it’s easy for readers to criticize or try to one-up journalists.
Tech writer Dan Gillmor, a former columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, said it best in an interview with NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen: “You know, (when) you write about tech in Silicon Valley—by definition your readers know more than you do. And then I thought about it and realized that it wasn’t different at all, that it had always been true. That whatever the subject I was writing about, the people who cared enough about it to read it knew more than I did—collectively.”
Audiences make it painfully clear to us, the “experts,” that they do know more. In my quest to better understand the obscure diseases on the (brilliant) medical show House, I searched for a website that analyzed each episode’s medical accuracy. There’s a blog written by a doctor covering exactly that; he even separates the show’s inaccuracies into “major, minor, and nit-picking” complaints. Looks like this doctor knows better than even the experts who approve and oversee the validity of the medical mysteries on the show.
So who are we to think we know best? Today’s readers challenge us. More and more, they don’t trust the press, and they’re willing to do their own research. And thanks to the unprecedented access to information that technology provides us, it is easy for a layperson to become an expert in his or her own narrow field of interest.
This might just be my way of getting off the hook—if I can’t know more than a layman, then why bother trying? But in a recent effort to better inform myself, I looked up that mysterious globulobastoma that my mom had referred to. Turns out mom was a little off—she had meant glioblastoma, or malignant gliomas. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I already knew the specifics of this particular type of brain tumor—all thanks to my having religiously watched the past five seasons of Grey’s Anatomy.
For now, then, I’ll stay satisfied with, er, correcting my mom, even if it means having to watch a little more TV.
Pavithra Mohan is a sophomore at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism
Image courtesy xkcd.com