Spreading knowledge is an art, not a job


By Benjamin Bassham, News Editor

I’m really not comfortable with people, and that’s something of a failure in a journalist. Talking to new people is always uncomfortable, even when I’m not trying to extract information from them, so why did I get into this stressful field?

It wasn’t until the first day of my fourth semester that I figured out what I’m getting out of journalism. My classmates were introducing themselves, some giving the reason they were taking the class. When it was my turn my thoughts crystallized.

I’m majoring in journalism because I find ideas fascinating.

I collect interesting ideas. Images count, but what I really like are in-depth thoughtful articles or video/audio presentations. The subject barely matters. I’ll watch people talk about science, politics, economics, culture, just so long as they make a strong satisfying argument. There’s nothing like a clever idea presented well.

Idea seeking has made me into a repository of irregular trivia. Leaping from one momentary obsession to the next has made me an expert on nothing in particular and yet there’s hardly a subject I don’t know at least something about.

I encounter other people’s brilliant ideas, and they thrill me and inspire great blossoms of new thought. I want to make ideas that bloom in other’s minds the way they do in mine.

Doing journalism changes me from a spectator to a participant.

It takes real skill to take a collection of complex, abstract ideas, and express them simply. There’s always pressure to keep your writing tight, because of space constraints, but particularly because excess length is the sign of sloppy work, and it’s boring to read unnecessary waffling. Speech is awkward, so I appreciate the opportunity writing gives to take my thoughts apart and really polish them to a shine.

There’s a weird exaltation in paring a thought down to the minimum number of words, and making it as clear as possible and it’s gotten to be a thrill when I really nail a lead sentence.

Even the reporting of dry information has beauty to it, in the rhythm of facts and quotation, but opinion pieces are what make my heart beat faster.

I don’t write as many opinion pieces or reviews as I could. To start with, it takes some obsession to write a good opinion piece, and that doesn’t appear on command, but the real problem is that when I do them, I want to do them right. A news story is simple. I’m not speaking for myself; I’m just conveying the words of others, letting them speak for themselves. If I present my own thoughts poorly I have no excuse.

Skillfully communicating is a science and an art. The science is obvious; sentences need to be laid out according to a specific formula in order to be clear.

But if it is an art, it is shotgun painting. The words are the paint, and the reader is the canvas. I’m trying to find just the right blend of pigments that when I launch them out into the world they’ll make a beautiful painting when they hit the reader.

It’s very uncontrolled, and I can only decide where the paint starts, not what it ends up doing when it passes through the filter of minds unlike my own. That both limits what pigments I can use, and strictly requires that I leave nothing out while still keeping it short and sweet. Leaving out a single fact, or connection could break my careful chain of logic.

But in a perfect piece with information packed as tightly as possible, every sentence contains an element critical to understanding the whole. What are the chances of every reader absorbing every sentence?

As aggravating as it is, I have to learn to let go. Not every drop of thought-paint I fire from my imaginary shotgun is going to imprint a masterpiece on whatever mind it impacts. Some canvases reject oil-based thought patterns.