What journalists do (part one): the narrowing of the eyes

What exactly is it that journalists do?

The list in your mind probably includes doing interviews, going to political rallies, taking photographs, drinking too much, holding a microphone in front of the president, doing research, drinking too much, bravely investigating the doings of the corrupt, harassing celebrities, reading scientific papers and writing articles. Did I mention the drinking?

And yes, journalists do all of those things – though not all of them drink too much.

But, in fact, the thing that journalists do comes down to one thing: the “narrowing of the eyes”.*

What’s that mean, then?

In most of their lives, most people take things on faith. They don’t really know how their car works, but they happily drive to the shops anyway. They don’t know how their cellphones do what they do, but they send that WhatsApp anyway. They assume that their doctor, or priest, or teacher, knows what they are talking about. They live with open hearts, loving the people around them to lesser or greater degree. It is this trust and faith that makes us human, that connects us with other people, that keeps the world turning.

A true journalist, however, is born different. A journalist, when told something, narrows their eyes in suspicion and thinks: “Yeah right.” Then: “Who says so? Where does that come from? What is actually being said here? Is that true anyway?”

And then they set about finding out what is going on. (And they do this even if the issue fits their preconceived notions. A journalist who is pro-vaccination, for instance, will still look critically at what is said by pro-vaccination experts).

That means, when someone says they are expecting decuplets for instance, instead of thinking “how wonderful!”, a journalist narrows their eyes and thinks: “Really? I’ll believe it when I see 10 babies.”

This means a journalist is apart from the bounds of normal human intercourse, is always an outsider. That’s why their social circles usually consist of other journalists (though sometimes a cop or a lawyer might feature). And that’s why they drink.

They are distrustful so that other people don’t have to be. They carry the job of finding out the things that most people don’t really want to know. And they are always the messenger.

And for that you owe them your gratitude. Or at the very least the willingness to pay for what they do.

* The phrase is extrapolated from a set of characters in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series. They are called the Feegles (Wee Free Men) and they fear nothing except the women who run their lives. Here’s a sample from Wintersmith:

“Aye, Rob, but we canna help noticin’ ye also have tae do the Explainin’, too,’ said Daft Wullie.
There was a general nodding from the crowd. To Feegles, Explaining was a dark art. It was just so HARD.
‘Like, when we come back from drinkin’, stealin’, and fightin’, Jeannie gives ye the Pursin’ o’ the Lips,’ Daft Wullie went on.
A moan went up from all the Feegles: ‘Ooooh, save us from the Pursin’ o’ the Lips!’
‘An’ there’s the Foldin’ o’ the Arms,’ said Wullie, because he was even scaring himself.
‘Oooooh, waily, waily, waily, the Foldin’ o’ the Arms!’ the Feegles cried, tearing at their hair.
‘Not tae mention the Tappin’ o’ the Feets…’ Wullie stopped, not wanting to mention the Tappin’ o’ the Feets.
‘Aargh! Oooooh! No’ the Tappin’ o’ the Feets!’ Some of the Feegles started to bang their heads on trees.”

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Main picture: The Financial Times newsroom in 2008, Adam Tinworth, Flickr

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