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Why we do it

June 15, 2011

Let me be very clear before I begin: This story is not mine, it is only something I picked up today and feel deserves to be shared. It belongs to Arnold Miller, Newsday’s multimedia editor.

Every so often, journalists need to be reminded why they got into the profession in the first place. Journalism is a profession that, no matter how well you do on a given day or how many awards you take home, can be pretty thankless. And that’s okay, we know that going in and we know it when we get frustrated with a source who won’t call us back or a story that’s quickly falling through or when someone on the other end of the telephone line just wants to have a good holler at you.

Arnold, like so many of us, did not set out to be a journalist, instead double-majoring in history and political science with the expectation of attending law school. He quickly realized, however, that being a lawyer was not in the books for him and turned to a job taking pictures for a small newspaper.

One night, he was working the desk and got a call that there was a large house fire. He threw on his gear and rushed to the scene, where he simply did his job and caught whatever images he could, one of which captured a firefighter carrying a young girl — no older than four — blackened by soot and smoke out of the burning building.

Arnold hurried back to the newsroom, developed his photos and showed them to the chief of the copy desk, who chose the shot of the young girl to run above the fold the next day.

The girl died at 4 a.m. that morning.

Now, if the copy editor had known that the girl had died, the picture almost certainly would not have run in the 65,000-circulation, local paper. And the paper certainly looked like it was exploiting a horrible tragedy for the sake of an image, an idea that people who needed someplace to channel their pain leapt at.

Arnold received many angry phone calls and messages, leading him to wonder why, if journalism is little more than a profession capitalizing on other people’s tragedies, he’d even gotten in the industry in the first place.

It was less than a month later, while he was still in this phase, that Arnold’s pager went off at 1:30 in the morning. There was another large structure fire, less than two blocks from where he lived. Wondering if he would see the same sight again, Arnold threw pants and a jacket on, not even bothering with a shirt, and ran to the scene.

There, he saw a massive house fire and a group huddled at the end of the driveway, dressed in nightclothes and being brought blankets and other necessities by neighbors — clearly the family that lived in the burning house. Arnold stayed away from this group, taking his shots of the fire exclusively.

It is difficult, however, for a photographer to hide at the scene of a tragedy thanks to his bulky gear and the flash of his camera.

When a woman separated herself from that cluster of people and made a beeline towards him, Arnold was worried that she was  going to yell at him for capitalizing on yet another family’s pain. When she asked him what paper he worked for, he answered hesitantly.

The woman said, “I just want to thank you. You ran a picture of a dead girl on your front page a month ago and my husband went out and bought smoke detectors because of it. That’s why we’re alive right now and not still in there,” gesturing at the inferno.

—-

It’s a cute saying that journalism makes a difference and is necessary for democracy or whatever, but when someone says “I’m alive because of what you did,” the power of journalism is utterly impossible to ignore.

Those kinds of stories are the reason the criticism, the hours, the pay and the supposedly dying profession are worth it.

They’re also the reason it will survive.

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