Janet Malcolm was wrong.
In a famously cynical quotation, she decries journalists as people who prey on the vanity, loneliness or ignorance of others, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Every journalist knows this, she asserted, provided they aren’t too stupid or full of themselves to notice what is going on.
And although Malcolm is herself a reporter, she calls the profession ” morally indefensible” in her 1990 book The Journalist and the Murder.
Enter June Callwood: a decidedly empathetic and socially active journalist who lived her philosophy of kindness until her last days.
This was a woman who actually did all the things that sometimes sound contrived and trite in ethics classes: writing to change the world, speaking up for the vulnerable, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.
She was interesting and humble, refusing performance makeup in her CBC television days, learning how to fly a plane as a side project, founding charitable and change-oriented organizations, bringing compassion to her work.
She was a professional human being.
I’m not saying Malcolm isn’t talented and insightful. I devoured her book with great interest last summer and often felt convinced by her severe depiction of journalism.
Neither am I saying Callwood is the only exception.
The point, I think, is that there comes a time when a young journalist must ask herself what she really wants to achieve in this often amorphous profession and what kind of an agent she imagines herself to be.
Personally, I think it’s far more rewarding to follow the June Callwood way.
Instead of the negative navel-gazing, why not focus on how to practice solutions-focused journalism? Malcolm’s book is about the damage a writer can do … but what about the difference a writer can make?
I leave you with a more positive quotation that Callwood spoke while receiving the Writers’ Trust Award for Distinguished Contribution in the last year of her life:
If any of you happens to see an injustice, you are no longer a spectator. You are a participant. And you have an obligation to do something.