Resilience and vulnerability: Necessary tools for the future of journalism (& life)

There are times where I feel quite vulnerable, even in front of a crowd. This was shortly before the start of a panel I moderated for ONA SF in October 2017. Photo by André Natta.

I’ve absorbed much of my lessons from this past year on Stanford’s campus outside of the classroom. As such, I’ve found it hard to capture them in a way that’s helpful for me and others. The gems gleaned from late nights in lecture halls and in sporting venues have gone a long way in helping establish a framework to determine what happens next.

The most important gift of this fellowship is one where you, “find [y]our resilience again,” as Cambodian-born human rights activist Loung Ung said during an appearance during spring quarter. So much of what we do in journalism is predicated on giving of yourself, often with people unaware of what’s possible. Journalists say they give, but often without being willing to actually listen to criticism or, worse, not articulating something in more detail because they assume you know as much as they do about the situation.

Resilience is a learned skill and a behavior you can cultivate. My experience found me taking Ung’s advice to go inward often to understand the lessons being learned. I found the habit of sitting by myself — even in the midst of a crowded gymnasium or lecture hall — daunting. Most nights, reflecting on lessons learned meant attempting to journal and meditating on major themes. The practice was beneficial, as it helped me realize how helpful it could be but how lonely it can become if I’m unable to truly talk things through. It also meant I was able to follow another piece of advice, seeking out tools to help me discover how and where to find the resilience necessary to move forward.

How vulnerable are we willing to be with our ourselves, our co-workers, and the communities we call home? The way we choose to answer this question will have more to do with the future of journalism than anything else. We ask the public to support our efforts financially and trust us to do right by them. We expect them to comply without question though they’re savvy enough to know they were, until very recently, the product.

It’s hard to find resilience without surrendering to vulnerability. I found myself willing to expose myself to others because I felt it was the only way to truly become part of a community. Sharing of and about myself over lunches, coffee, and sitting within the boundaries of a world created to make me feel comfortable is one of the most uncomfortable feelings in the world. Maybe that’s how our sources and subjects for stories feel when we ask them to place trust in us just because we possess a byline?

It’s hard to reach out if you work in a profession long focused on looking inward. A lesson I’ve started to embrace more since hearing Ung speak involves finding more ways to reach out for help. Thinking about how you serve a community instead of just yourself will give you tremendous strength while recognizing what makes where you are special. This approach has me longing for the day when people are less concerned about the stolen story and more about what makes how you do your work unique from others. It’s that special quirk, and the ability to know you don’t have to do everything all the time. It means the local news and information outlet doesn’t have to simply copy the long-followed recipe for what gets people to read. Now, we can focus on what helps people succeed.

This slight shift in approach and perspective should help reduce the need for every news outlet to cover every story the exact same way. This means learning a different kind of resilience and vulnerability — one where success is measured not by clicks and time spent browsing but on the impact a story has on the community.

All of this means I need to hold on to the resilience I’ve discovered throughout the last nine months. I often find myself scared of facing this task alone, though I somehow always seem to stumble across a sign of hope for help on this sustained journey toward being a more vulnerable person both in and out of the newsroom. I hope to find many more out there as I step back out into the world this summer.

A quiet night on the campus of Stanford University in early December 2017. Photo by André Natta.

NOTE: Fellow JSK alum Heather Bryant and I will be facilitating a session at SRCCON 2018 on June 29 at 4:15 p.m. CT about how vulnerability can be used as a news strategy. You’ll be able to find notes and resources on the conference website in the coming weeks.

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