Why does journalism matter – especially for high school students

Viktor Vasnetsov. ''The Flying Carpet'' (1880).

Journalism is a simple matter of asking “why?”

If you are ready to accept what you are told by parents, teachers, administrators, school board members, local elected officials — or anybody else for that matter — then you don’t need journalism.

But if you want to know WHY you can take this elective but not that elective, if you want to know WHY the school is spending more money on one subject than another, if you want to know WHY your town is passing a new law…then you need journalism.

People remember that President Nixon was forced to resign because news stories revealed “Watergate,” but they forget that the entire story unraveled from a single simple question: Why did a  burglar who was caught breaking into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate office building have a White House phone number in his address book?

That was it. A few smart reporters asked that first good question. Everything else unraveled from there.

Journalism is just like auto mechanics. I have a set of simple tools: good questions; the ability to record answers accurately; the ability to research basic facts; the ability to call strangers on the phone and ask them to help me understand things; and decent writing skills. I use these tools to take apart and rebuild stories, the same way you would take apart and rebuild a car engine. I figure out what is wrong with the story, and I put it back together, restoring the pieces that were missing – or perhaps hidden – in the first version.

The only real requirement of journalism is curiosity. You have to wonder WHY things are and you have to keep asking questions until you get a satisfactory answer.

Some of you may not want to be reporters for a living. I would not argue with you. It is a hard job and generally does not pay very well.

But if you sharpen your journalism skills, they will help you no matter what career you pursue. The ability to ask good questions, accurately and critically consume the answers, clearly and quickly write a summary of your findings – those few skills will take you far in any job.

Journalism has the power to change the world. Governments have fallen, decisions have been reversed, communities have been saved, legislation has been passed, campaigns have blossomed or died because reporters persisted in asking WHY until an unsettling truth was exposed.

But journalism also has the power to change YOU.

Because of my press pass, I have traveled with presidents, I have dined with the homeless, I have stood in the rubble of a devastating hurricane, and I have ducked flying laundry in a celebratory locker room.

I once found a crime buried in a 2,000-page list of numbers.

I sat with a Cleveland family grieving the murder of their beloved priest by his acolyte.

And I sat in a Nashville hotel ballroom with 150 other reporters one weird Election Night in November 2000 when dawn broke, and we still did not know who was president.

My press pass has been my magic carpet, taking me places I could not even have imagined.

And now, your carpet awaits.

Paul Singer is the Investigations Editor for the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and WGBH.