Journalism’s potential to educate and delight — yes, you heard that right

Independent journalist name plate

Editor’s Note: Stell Simonton will be one of the freelance panelist appearing at the SPJ Region 3 Spring Conference & Freelance Blitz in Charleston on March 24.

By Stell Simonton, SPJ Georgia member, Independent journalist from Atlanta, Georgia

Changes in American journalism over the past decade have left us in a shifting, uncertain landscape.

But recently I’ve found myself reflecting on something else about journalism — what it offers to the journalist.

Represent magazine logo

I was thinking about a phone interview I had with a 17-year-old girl in foster care. I was doing an article on a New York City organization, Youth Communication, that gives voice to kids in foster care through a magazine, Represent. The teenage girl had written about her experience for the magazine, and I asked her how she got involved with Youth Communication.

She’d heard about it, she said, because her mother had written for Rise magazine.

Rise MagazineHow is that connected?” I asked, a little confused.

She told me that the founder of Youth Communication was on the board of Rise.

After we talked, I looked up Rise. It’s a magazine written by parents whose children have been placed in foster care.

So the teenager had written about her difficult experiences as a child. And her mother had written her own account of being charged with neglect.

The idea that a forum existed for both of them — the parent who may have neglected or harmed her child as well as the child herself — floored me for a moment.

The startling thing was that the people on both sides of a terrible thing were being supported — so different from the way we present guilt and innocence in newspapers.

The startling thing was that the people on both sides of a terrible thing were being supported — so different from the way we present guilt and innocence in newspapers.

Mother and child were each examining their lives through writing. And they could meet each other on the page.

Not only was I looking at the enormous value of writing, but I was seeing a place in the world in which both voices were held.

The idea seemed stunning to me.

In my work as a freelance journalist, many things widen my eyes. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t get hit over the head by an idea that seems novel — something new that people are doing, something new about how the world works.

Art and the IRS

Sergi photo

Artist Sergey Cherep, Facebook photo

Recently in pursuing a story about artists, I talked to a painter who came from Russia to the United States as a young man during the glasnost years. His first job in this country was as a janitor at the Internal Revenue Service in Atlanta. While cleaning one day, he got in a conversation with the director and showed the man some art. As a result, his first art show in this country was held in the IRS cafeteria.

In 1994, a couple of years after arriving, he traveled to California to see the world soccer championship in Pasadena. He visited the Napa Valley and was transfixed by the sun, the light, the land and the fragrance of grapes. It changed his painting from the realistic classical style he had learned in art school in Russia to a style of landscape with sweeping curves and vivid primary colors.

Even now, I see his art in my mind, the sunshine he paints and the wide open vistas. To me, hearing the story behind his art enormously enhanced the impact of his work.

Finally, I was assigned to write about an organization that uses improv to teach leadership skills to middle-school girls. I was skeptical. It sounded like it might be a case of exaggerated claims. But the organization presented a clear vision of what improv could teach and a clear method of helping girls learn by doing.

Improv

In the course of researching the story, I was amazed to learn that the art of improv — popularized by Second City in Chicago — had its start in Hull House in Chicago, a settlement house that assisted immigrants who lived in poverty. From the outset, improv was created as a tool to widen the bounds of human expression and to educate through play, as well as to entertain an audience.

I learned all these things in February. It’s just another example of the continuing education that is journalism.

I learned all these things in February. It’s just another example of the continuing education that is journalism.

Now don’t get me wrong. Journalism isn’t always instructive in a positive way. Reporters can learn a lot about the ugly side of life.

Furthermore, you might conclude from this that I’m naive and untutored, making every idea seem new and exciting.

No matter. I’m pretty convinced that the practice of journalism can engage us deeply in the world, offer a richness of connection — and educate and delight.

Stell Simonton 2

Stell Simonton

Stell Simonton is an independent journalist in Atlanta. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionWashington PostChristian Science MonitorAl Jazeera America and Georgia Health News among other publications. Simonton writes frequently for Youth Today and has special knowledge of youth development, social/emotional learning and innovative work with young people. She has also contributed to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, and recently begun writing for How Stuff Works. Simonton is a former digital editor-producer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she worked for 19  years. She began as a copy editor for the newspaper. As a full-time freelancer for the past five years, Simonton continues to think a lot about the best ways to work as an independent journalist. 

In addition to SPJ and SPJ Georgia, she is active in the Journalism & Women Symposium, a national organization of women journalists. Simonton is a member of the SPJ Georgia Freelance Community and will be writing a quarterly column for SPJ Region 3’s SizingUpTheSouth.com starting in spring 2018. 

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Society of Professional Journalists

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Twitter  @spj_3

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