In a crowded coffee shop in downtown London, I sat with a colleague interviewing a subject for an upcoming story. We hadn’t known her for more than 10 minutes, and yet she spoke to us with the comfort and confidence of a long-time friend.
To the passersby, our conversation seemed as innocuous as any other. But against the backdrop of students studying, awkward first dates and power lunches, we were being told the gut-wrenching story of a sex-trafficking victim.
The way she would so seamlessly veer from frank statements about the years of abuse she endured to waving at familiar customers, was both jarring and endearing. She was happy to tell her story – the information, she said, was essential for the public to know.
“Thank you for doing this story,” she said. “It’s important for people to hear it.”
It wasn’t the first time this year I’d been thanked during an interview, which felt odd. In writing my stories, I was surprised that countless people would so willingly give up their time to a student journalist. Under the circumstances, if anyone should be extending gratitude, it should have been me.
When I left the interview, I contemplated the latest “thank you” I’d received. As I thought back to the stories I’d written this year and the sources that unveiled them, I had a revelation. I realized that for the public, sharing information is a way for them to connect to the broader community.
A few weeks ago, I was writing a piece about the problems faced by long-term care facilities in the city. When I interviewed a local public health activist, he said very few reporters were interested in the subject, especially younger ones.
“We need more journalists like you,” he told me. “Thanks for getting this vital information into the public domain.”
For these individuals, we were shedding light on often untold stories. We were giving them a platform to share their experiences with others. We were telling their truths without any judgement.
We were being responsible journalists.
As journalists, we seek to be responsible and authentic when telling stories. But the line between exploitative and informative can often blur. It’s difficult for not only our subjects to identify but sometimes for us as well.
Late last fall, I profiled a man who had just moved his mother with Alzheimer’s into a nursing home. The story was painful to write. When I travelled with him to visit his mother, I felt like I was violating a private moment. But again, he thanked me for coming.
The words “thank you” have continued to creep up on me. Still, I’ve always felt that journalists don’t deserve appreciation just for doing their job.
What I’ve realized is that when reporters go a bit further and search for the stories that aren’t being told, ones that represent the unrepresented and oppose the mainstream media’s reliance on flash and clickbait, they become truly responsible journalists.
That is what the community appreciates. That is when journalists get thanked by the people about whom they write and by readers.
For story sources, it takes great trust to give up their voice to the written words of a reporter – a stranger – and have those stories shared with society.
But it’s these kinds of stories that help us understand who we are, as people and as a community. And sometimes, for the people sharing them, it can be cathartic.
A few weeks after the coffee shop interview with a sex-trafficking victim, we were put in contact with another trafficking survivor. This woman was only 13 when she was trafficked in London.
“I’ve never told my experience to this many people,” she said upon sharing her story. When the cameras shut off and the interview wrapped, she embraced my co-writer with a hug.
Reporting about the shadowed aspects of the world help make society more responsible. The prevalence of sex trafficking in an affluent city or the unnerving conditions our elderly live in at the end of their lives aren’t glamorous stories to cover, but they’re realities that must be shared in the public domain.
To write these stories is a responsibility that journalists must bear, whether they get thanked for doing it or not.
Max Martin is a student in the Master of Media in Journalism and Communication program at Western. He is a writer, photographer and content creator based in Southwestern Ontario.
Martin is the recipient of the 2019 HaakSaan Responsible Journalism Scholarship, presented annually to a full-time student in the MMJC program based on academic achievement. The winning student must demonstrate high integrity and write an op-ed that demonstrates a strong commitment to responsible journalism.
This scholarship was established by Mr. Bryan Byong-Kuon Kim in memory of his parents to promote and enhance social justice, peace and harmony by encouraging highly responsible journalism.