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Journalists, at their best, change more than their socks — they change lives

John W. Fountain teaching at a community workshop he sponsors, free of charge, for people want to learn to write their own stories.

Many years ago, as a young reporter intern at the Sun-Times, I was espousing journalism ideals at lunch with a veteran reporter one summer afternoon.

“I want to use journalism to make a difference, to effect change,” I intoned, drooling with passion.

OPINION

“Listen, John,” the curmudgeonly vet said in between a mouthful of sandwich without ever looking up, “about the only thing you’re going to change in journalism (munch-munch) is your socks…”

I thought to myself: “If I ever get this jaded about journalism, just shoot me.”

I was at a loss for words. Instead, I decided to temporarily curb my journalistic zeal, to shut up and finish my lunch. And I resolved to never allow anyone — or anything — to steal my fire.

More than three decades later, the fire still burns, though my zeal has been seasoned with wisdom. And yet, I am convinced that journalism matters. That it has the power to create critical lasting change by the transmission of ideas, words and stories, although it routinely falls short of its potential.

This is a sin of omission.

Each day, American journalism presents the menu of news it believes is most important to the lives of Americans. It is the first draft of history.

But whole swaths of culture and life routinely go missing from the platter of American journalism, particularly stories about minority communities, the disenfranchised and poor, and social causes that rail against the status quo. Too often, journalism is jaded by the misperceptions and preconceived notions of well-meaning reporters who write from the outside looking in — as occasional ghetto tourists rather than as inhabitants.

What’s often lost is a fuller, richer, more complete portrait. Stories better told from the inside looking in.

Truth is, I have never understood how white reporters and writers can become “experts” on black folk and the “black condition.”

How can you get my story completely right when you don’t even “get” me? When your soul has not been singed by the fires of American racism?

In the words of the old saints, “You can’t tell it, let me tell it.”

Wouldn’t the world and history and black folks be better served if we instead spoke for ourselves — unedited, unfiltered and uncensored by stereotypes or systemic hate? The thought is intoxicating.

To impact diversity within journalism and within a democracy, I believe that nothing is more critical than to empower those whose voices are seldom heard to tell their own stories.

It isn’t rocket science. As a 30-year journalism practitioner, I have taught others — from children to young adults to the elderly — how to write, record and publish their stories as seen through their own eyes and told in their own voices.

I see it as a matter of our own survival. A matter of truth and hope, even as I am invigorated by words from the inaugural editorial of the Anglo-African Magazine in 1859: “No outside tongue, however gifted in eloquence, can tell (our) story.”

The ability to present our stories to the world has never been clearer than today when digital and mobile technologies allow us to instantaneously publish to the world. To ultimately create a collective body of work that captures our voices, our struggles and triumphs, our existence and stories as told authentically by us.

That’s empowering. And that’s journalism. It’s the kind of journalism that has enabled me to capture for the annals of time the lives, faces and voices of people on the other side of the tracks — among them my own.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. And that’s a helluva lot more than just changing my socks.

Email: Author@johnwfountain.com