Commentary: The words hanging over my head as a young reporter on Inauguration Day

By Erica Irish

TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS—One of the first lessons our Statehouse File reporters learn is they are not student journalists. 

They are journalists. 

Erica Irish is the 2021 Russell Pulliam student editor for TheStatehouseFile.com. She is a senior at Franklin College studying multimedia journalism and political science. Photo by Quinn Fitzgerald, The Franklin.

There of course isn’t an anointing ceremony to go with this—there’s no initiation that helps our staff transition from campus journalism to professional journalism. There’s no seamless training or perfect guidebook. The rush of the daily grind is instead our best teacher. 

But the resonance of this unspoken lesson, this transition from campus reporter to working journalist, is perhaps most felt at times such as this. When just a few weeks ago, I and my peers saw violent demonstrators scrawl in black marker a call to action on the inner walls of the U.S. Capitol: “MURDER THE MEDIA.”

We’re miles away, working from dorm rooms or from kitchen tables in our family homes, watching live streams and making calls and asking questions. We’re collecting pieces and threads to make sense of the complicated ideologies, dreams and divisions of which our patchwork country consists. 

But the words in black marker hang over our heads, too. And that’s when we know. 

Something inside is now shifted, and it won’t go back. 

I’ve tried to pin down lately when exactly that moment was for me, and I can’t. Times have changed, and the young journalists who work for TheStatehouseFile.com today are facing new, more volatile—and necessary—debates about truth, decency, justice, American nationalism, white supremacy and the freedom of the press to do its job.

President Joe Biden made this reality clear Wednesday in his inaugural address. Surrounded by heightened security and a small crowd limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said to the American people, “Each of us has a duty and a responsibility … to defend the truth and defeat the lies.” 

Biden’s words resonate with me when I look at the first-year college students working on our team today, who are doing the work to uphold accuracy and accountability. They are reporting through a moment far more chaotic than my first professional journalism experiences just three years ago, and I wonder frequently what the lasting impact will be. 

The optimist in me believes the young journalists being shaped today will be resilient, ready for what pushback and nationwide turmoil might be ahead. The realist in me expects such resiliency won’t come without sacrifice, a sacrifice that detracts from the other essential parts of life like mental health.  

Already studies have shown an observable toll on working journalists, with some 70% of journalists who participated in a recent study reporting they’ve experienced some level of psychological distress. That distress shows up in many ways, manifesting for some as an anxiety disorder marred by insomnia, excessive worry and fatigue. 

Work is being done to understand the sacrifices journalists make and to find avenues to help them cope. And it must continue. 

I often wonder if I have the right to comment on this anymore. I’m leaving daily journalism in a few months, at least for a while, to broaden my horizons, to learn more about tech and the business leadership I believe newsrooms desperately need to thrive. 

I’m excited for the work ahead of me and am embracing the change. Change is how we get to innovation, and my generation—the students, now journalists, I work with every day—will be the generation to welcome it. 

And the words, good and bad, we now see hurled at all journalists won’t be forgotten, either. They’ll stay suspended above us in memory, motivating us to persist in our mission to tell the truth. 

Even in times when Americans are divided. Even as some call for violence. 

Young reporters are here. 

Erica Irish is the 2021 Russell Pulliam student editor for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. 

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