Thursday, January 17, 2013

Eugene Patterson's Advice for the Ages

Posted By on Thu, Jan 17, 2013 at 3:01 PM

patterson-obit-1-popup.jpg
  • courtesy of the Tampa Bay Times, via the Associated Press

I have this vision where every time a relative or unassuming stranger tells me that journalism is dying, I cackle and tell them, “You’re next.”

Alas, there are much more respectable ways to respond to the all-too-familiar accusations that journalists face regarding the future of our profession. As a fledgling writer just now beginning to dabble in work of the professional-caliber, I need all the advice I can get, and this week I stumbled across some I can covet.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eugene Patterson, who died last week from complications of cancer, spent the majority of his 89 years crusading for the civil rights movement, progressivism and improved ethical standards for journalists. It seems only fitting that his last thoughts on the profession he worked so diligently to reform, dictated to a friend last November and available in their entirety here on Poynter, can be applied not only to journalism, but any industry on the cusp of a major transitionary period.

Patterson begins by emphasizing how truth cannot be sacrificed as technology pushes us into pursuing more efficient ways of profiting from our work. Instead, journalists must “carry in their bones” the ability to uncover the truth in the news no matter the cost. And if the truth hurts? “Just say ow,” Patterson quips.

After encouraging writers to maintain their ideals of skepticism, fairness and vigilance, Patterson doesn’t hesitate to dole out the tough love, stating that “there’s no room for the ordinary” in a line of work that’s bursting at the seams. It’s here that Patterson’s words carry far beyond the realm of journalism, into other professions threatened by stagnancy and false senses of security.

We must strive harder to connect with those who seek to learn, to benefit, from what we produce, and sacrifices must be made unless we ourselves want to be sacrificed. “Get over the pain,” Patterson said. “New stuff happens.” And if you can’t take that heat, please, get out of the kitchen. Or newsroom. Wherever it is you may be, rise to the challenge.

“Don’t just make a living,” read the words of Eugene Patterson memorialized in the courtyard of the Poynter Institute. “Make a mark.”

Should we start today?

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