All kinds of courage are needed from journalists in 2006: The courage an editor calls upon to run a story despite the anticipated brouhaha; the kind a publisher needs to make the case for newsroom resources, and the kind a CEO needs when talking to analysts about the public interest. The courage a Washington reporter summons to question a politician who will portray the act of questioning as a failure of patriotism. Then there is the courage any newsgatherer must summon to persevere in getting quotes on the record when anonymity is so much easier. And journalists have long relied on courage to speak truth to power. All of these traditional forms of journalistic courage are more essential than ever in our post-9/11 spin-driven, secrecy-proliferating, profit-seeking times.
Other kinds of courage are vital to our work today, too: subtler forms, such as the courage to admit mistakes, acknowledge doubts, hold ourselves accountable, make our work transparent. And there is the courage it takes to vie for a position that no one who looks remotely like you has ever held or to promote to an important post someone whose strengths and leadership style are entirely different than your own.
It is true that certain kinds of courage in our craft continue to be more readily rewarded. Physical courage, so often tested abroad, is rarely required of us here at home; still, we like to be as close to such danger as we can and reward the bold stroke — the pioneering story or the brave speech made to an expected hostile crowd. These are admirable steps, and widely acknowledged as such, whether through prizes, favorable coverage, or slaps on the back, a way of saying "you made an impact" or "you get credit." All of this feeds a very satisfying loop.
Then there is the courage that feels more like a slow, hard slog. The courage to keep reporting things no one wants to hear — or worse, that no one does hear. The courage that keeps a journalist toiling away until one day all of the work gets acknowledged by the difference it has made. This is a courage that keeps on believing in that day despite signs that it’s not soon approaching. It’s this strength that pushes a journalist to go on making the phone calls, setting up contacts, writing pieces, all done with the spirit of good cheer and all to the purpose of making happen what the journalist believes will and must eventually happen. This kind of courage is very much like faith.
One of my favorite exemplars of this "we can do it" kind of courage is Philip Meyer, who teaches at the University of North Carolina journalism school. No matter how predictable it is that someone will howl, "But that sounds like credentialing," or "Journalism isn’t a profession and thank goodness for that," Meyer holds fast. He has strong beliefs and backs them up with substantial research, which, of course, makes his ideas eminently worthy of serious consideration and, therefore, very likely to make a difference.
If our times call for patient courage, they also demand wise courage. Some journalists are fighting avidly against developments that are identified (accurately for the most part) as solely profit-driven and destructive of good work. But our customary aversion to all change can cause us to do more harm. While we must protect journalism in the public interest, when long-time models of its practice are challenged, wisdom is what we need to enable us to distinguish between traditions we don’t need to cling to — be they ink on paper or the inverted pyramid — and those that we do. Our craft demands such courage if we are to find a constructive way through the many difficulties that challenge us today.
This kind of courage doesn’t draw attention to those who practice it. Instead it is the speak-it and think-about-it, build-it-slowly and protect-it-from-being-undermined, go-back-at-it-again-after-your-ideas-have-been-dismissed kind of courage. And its feel is less like an explosion, more like water wearing on a stone. Wise and patient courage are harder to summon and more difficult to notice than the bold moves we seem to admire most. But they are precisely the kinds of courage that will likely save journalism.
Geneva Overholser, a 1986 Nieman Fellow, holds the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting for the Missouri School of Journalism, in its Washington, D.C., bureau.