Words to the EIJ wise

Raney Aronson-Rath, the executive producer of Frontline, seen with David Fanning, the executive producer at large in 2011. Aronson-Rath wants to uphold the values of a free press.
(Photo: Peabody Awards/Flickr)

When Raney Aronson-Rath began her journalism career at an English language newspaper in Taiwan in the early 1990s, she witnessed the emergence of a free press, in a time where the country was undergoing significant political reforms.

Aronson-Rath, now the executive producer of the PBS documentary program Frontline, said that witnessing that was an a-ha moment, a moment that would provide guidance to the work that she would do in the future.

“Growing up in America, I had taken the ideas of a free press, freedom of speech, and democracy for granted,” Aronson-Rath wrote in an essay for Current, a magazine for public media professionals. “I never would again. I realized how important it is to protect those ideas, and I decided at that point to commit to journalism as my career.”

Roughly two decades later, the a-ha moment she saw in Taiwan emerged in a new form for me, in suburban Chicago. In the Spring of 2009, I had a medical trifecta which resulted in me completing my junior and senior years of high school as a homebound student. As the days saw me going back and forth with my mom to a plethora of doctor’s appointments, the nights saw insomnia, a side effect of the medications I was taking.

What exactly could I do in those hours so I wouldn’t wake my mom and sister? I turned to the radio – public radio, to be precise, something that night and during the course of my recovery became a friend in the hours where one truly felt isolated and scared. I grew curious about the role stories could have, written and spoken, and the impact they could have on the world.

The values that Aronson-Rath wanted to protect soon became ones I wanted to protect too, as I knew that I wanted to go to college and pursue a career in journalism – and that’s exactly what I did.

This week, my SPJ colleagues are gathering in Anaheim, Calif., for the annual Excellence in Journalism conference. It is a culmination of the current journalism year in which we get to celebrate some of the best and brightest people in this industry.

It is also a time to reflect and to ponder about the future of journalism, and for that matter our crafts, in an age where the cultures of the internet and social media are leading the way in reinventing how we think about both – and how we can be authentic.

The timing of EIJ is also apt – as this month also marks the 50th anniversary of when the House of Representatives passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which also created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. When President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law that November, he spoke about what would come of the Act, and how public broadcasting would enrich one’s spirit and advance the education of the people.

Enriching one’s spirit and advancing the education of the people are hallmarks of all quality journalism. Like our colleagues in public media, we are storytellers, with the desire to inform, educate and engage, with the hope, as this announcement from WGBH put it, help people “cope better with the world” and their own lives.

It’s hard sometimes, especially for young career journalists like myself – with the blunt, uneasy criticism of the Trump Administration, as well as the general economic outlook of the profession – to know that the work you do can matter to your audience. Reminders that the ability to do such work exist help along the way.

It is in that spirit that I’d like to introduce you to the people who occupy a building just off of Cedar Street in St. Paul, Minn., where it just so happens that the organization that employs them is celebrating their 50th birthday this year.

That building is home to Minnesota Public Radio, and the corporate headquarters of American Public Media, home of national programs like Marketplace, The Splendid Table and A Prairie Home Companion, and who distributes the BBC World Service to public radio stations across the US. In that building are people who put their family, friends and neighbors first – who care deeply about the ability to enrich the spirit of Minnesotans and Americans, and advance the education of the people, so they can be at their best.

Indeed, it, and the reminder of why journalism remains important to democracy, is made known on a t-shirt linking the start next Sunday of Flyover from MPR News, a national call-in program.

Since that night in 2009, I’ve had a soft spot for them – a soft spot that has grown exponentially since moving to the Twin Cities. Indeed, that soft spot applies to all who work in public media, and all who look to uphold the importance of a free press and the fundamental role journalism has in democracy, through the output produced each day.

Fred Rogers said that life is for service – and as life is for service, then journalism remains the most important profession you can choose to have a career in. Working together, we can uphold the values of journalism in a democracy, promote the need for quality, ethical journalism and help people be at their best.

If we won’t do it, who will?

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist who writes for publications in the US and the UK. He also serves on SPJ’s Ethics Committee. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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