By The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.
All journalists enjoy getting recognition for their work. But by nature and tradition, they’d much rather tell the story than be the story.
What motivates reporters, from Maryland to Myanmar, is not the desire for fame. It’s the hunger to break news, explain the world and hold the powerful accountable. A savvy reporter, if asked theoretically to choose between writing a Time magazine cover story and appearing on the cover, would surely pick the former. Why would a journalist ever get that spotlight? More likely than not due to some kind of bad news.
Alas, it is so. Time’s 2018 Person of the Year, revealed Tuesday, is a small group of intrepid journalists from around the world lauded in a cover story titled “The Guardians and the War on Truth.” Six of the guardians are dead. Two are in jail in Myanmar. One faces charges in the Philippines.
Journalists in many countries without guaranteed press freedom must take risks to report news that is critical of the government. In America, where the Constitution provides protections, anger and disdain toward the news media permeate hyperpartisan discourse. President Donald Trump has deemed pesky reporter types to be enemies of the people. Such inflammatory rhetoric, if taken to an extreme here or abroad, is dangerous.
Yet as much as Time’s story is focused on tragedy and injustice, it’s also a defiant, affirming tale that shows reporters are tenacious souls. Their commitment to news is an occupational trait and occupational hazard. Journalists chase the truth the way first responders chase fires. A few hours after the shooting massacre at Maryland’s Capital Gazette last June in which five people were killed, colleague Chase Cook, a reporter, declared in a tweet: “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” Journalists in any country would recognize that call to arms. And yes, the Gazette did publish the next morning.
Time gave the staff of the Gazette its Person of the Year honor along with murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi; Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, who faces tax fraud charges after her aggressive reporting on the government; and Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were imprisoned in Myanmar after reporting on alleged genocide against the Rohingya Muslims. The inclusion of the Gazette staff is personal to us because it’s a sister publication to the Chicago Tribune. The five Gazette employees killed by a gunman who allegedly held a grudge against the newspaper were Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, Rebecca Smith and John McNamara.
Part of Time’s purpose in honoring journalists is to highlight the jarring irony of assaults on the truth in the age of information: “This ought to be a time when democracy leaps forward, an informed citizenry being essential to self-government. Instead it’s in retreat.” A true though rather dour assessment of the digital age. Social media can be a great equalizer between the public and the powerful. Tweets from the streets can galvanize opposition to a dictator overnight. But the dictatorial don’t give up without fighting back, and the internet doesn’t take sides. Facebook and the like are merely tools available to all, for better and worse, in pursuit of facts or fictions.
What can make a difference, Time submits, is the work of journalists dedicated to fair, diligently reported news and analysis. For journalists to be recognized, and remembered, is an honor. Many people in our profession were pleased to get the support, humbled by a moment in the limelight. Employees of our parent company, Tribune Publishing, paused Tuesday to reflect anew on the loss of our Gazette colleagues.
And then we all went back to work.