The duty we call journalism: my year in news during the 2016 election
“There's nothing that's more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate. When there's no information or, much worse, wrong information, it can lead to calamitous decisions and clobber any attempts at vigorous debate—that’s why I produce the news.”
And that’s why I produced the news. For 354 days, I wanted more than anything to be like my fictional hero, Mackenzie McHale— the protagonist and executive producer on HBO’s Newsroom. If you haven’t seen it, it’s an Aaron Sorkin creation that tells the story of a news staff who decides to buck ratings and do the news well.
If you take nothing else from the rest of this post, know that these people exist in real life. These journalists hellbent on presenting the facts, spend countless hours, making nearly nothing to fulfill the duty we call journalism.
On this day, two years ago, I was one of those people.
My year in news
I was 22, eleven months out of college. I was the morning producer at a local South Carolina news station. I worked 11pm to 8am, Monday-Friday. I was responsible for planning, writing and executing a two-and-a-half hour morning news program in a viewing demographic of 400 thousand people. I made $30,000 a year.
On a typical day, I arrived just as the 11 p.m. broadcast began. I checked emails, read press releases, went over footage from the day before and then began to build a show. I chose which stories made the newscast, what the anchors said, which soundbite to grab from witnesses, what the lower-third read and which video would accompany the story. Around midnight, most people cleared out and it was just me, the police scanner and the national news cycle rolling in the background. Editors showed up around 2 a.m. to begin cutting the video I had selected, and the anchors arrived around 3:30 a.m. I printed scripts at 4 a.m. and we were live at 4:30.
During the show, I was the captain. In the booth, I sat behind the director, but in front of audio. I kept track of when we needed to go to commercial break and I gave anchors cues in their ears. If we were running heavy in a news block, I’d kill a story, relaying that information to my crew and anchors. If we were light, I’d tell the anchors to fill, stretch, and then count them down to commercial. We were usually short-handed on the graveyard shift, so most days, I also rolled the teleprompter.
To describe a newsroom on any other day would only give you a snippet of what that evening was like. Newsrooms have this dual personality. At one time, they roars with chaos, alarming pitches and angry voices, and yet can also be seamless, choreographed dances, slow and void of sound.
The world’s largest game of telephone
On this particular occasion though, I was scheduled dayside, to help with the wall-to-wall coverage of the election. We took shifts in the booth. There was no script. Instead it was ad-libbed. It was the largest game of telephone ever created. Election results would roll in from the AP wire, where the news desk would receive them. They’d shout out to the newsroom and those tweeting would tweet, those updating the website would update and those reporting would report. Then they’d call the booth, where a producer would answer the phone, relay the information to the anchors. Then the anchors told the viewers.
It’s a well-known fact that the lows in news are unavoidable. I was the only one in the newsroom when five Dallas police officers were gunned down at a Black Lives Matter rally. I watched all 9 minutes and 47 seconds of a Facebook live video capturing a police officer shooting and killing Philando Castile. I answered 2 a.m., phone calls from rural corners of the state telling me that I was going to hell for showing Mr. Trump in a bad-light.
Covering the whole election was a punch to the gut. It was a never-ending tug of war between Trump saying something offensive, and people getting frustrated that we covered it. Either they were mad that we gave him anymore attention, or they were mad that we didn’t show more about his policies. I knew how long it took me to sprint to the bathroom, where I could throw up or cry. The newsroom was a place for a lot of things, but vulnerability was not one of them.
A dulled spark
I watched news veterans carry around an impenetrable shell, where nothing phased them, because it wasn’t their job to tell any side of the story but the truth. I watched the spark of passion dull from newcomers’ eyes with every “fake news” slander and the increasing distrust from the public.
When the 45th president of the United States of America was announced, I knew my spark was lost too. The results deflated me in a way I wasn’t expecting. A Trump presidency meant fighting for an industry that would never fight for me. It meant doing a thankless job for people who called in the middle of the night to tell me I was headed for hell. It meant defending my profession to family members who used Facebook as an arsenal to back me into a corner. It was a fire spreading across a nation and I stood with a single bottle of water.
On December 22, 2016, I said goodbye to news. I was the 19th person at my station that year to leave.
A new duty
Self-preservation is an odd thing. It’s a fine line I have yet to learn to walk. Watching the past two years, from outside of a newsroom, have affirmed I made the right decision. But there are days when I feel like I threw away my chance at change. Living in a cultural norm where fact is opinion and opinion is news is trying. I’m swarmed with guilt for leaving a fight I believe in. I’m hit by the truth that this administration will do everything to weed out ethical, truth-seeking journalists like myself, and I am painstakingly aware that my choice to quit is yet another victory for their cause.
“And what does winning look like to you? A nightly newscast that informs a debate worthy of a great nation. Civility, respect, and a return to what's important. The death of bitchiness, the death of gossip and voyeurism. Speaking truth to stupid. No demographic sweet spot. A place where we all come together. There's gonna be a huge conversation: Is government an instrument of good or is it every man for himself? Is there something bigger we want to reach for or is self-interest our basic resting pulse? You and I have a chance to be among the few people who can frame that debate.”
Mackenzie McHale again.
I am so grateful to those who continue to fight for truth. Many of them are friends, who like Mackenzie McHale, believe that truth and facts, regardless of opinion, are what make America the greatest country in the world.
The past two years have fundamentally changed who I am. They’ve made me wiser, louder, skeptical and enraged. I know that I made the right decision, but it’s hasn’t dulled my desire to participate in the debate.
So, I vote. I tell my own story of sexual assault. I empower women. I seek truth. And I hope. Hope for a revolution. Hope for a better world for my children. Hope for truth. It’s my duty.