Questions of Character

The twelve of us were all sitting by our computers when our teacher walked in late. He didn’t apologize for it or give us an explanation as to why he came strolling in five minutes past the time he was supposed to be there. Instead, he calmly slid his briefcase down on the desk and looked up at us and said:

“As a reporter, it’s suicide to be late. You’ll never get the story if you’re late—someone else will snatch it up ripe for the taking. Stories don’t wait for you to show up. They’re there, already happening, and it’s up to you to go grab them. So if you’re late, and you don’t get the story, how would your editor feel about that? It will cost the whole station time, and more importantly, money. It will cost you your own time and money, your integrity as a reporter…and, of course, your character.”

Confused, I scanned the room, looking at the other 11 students around me. Nobody seemed to be paying attention to our teacher’s long rant except for me. Nobody was late this morning except for him, and he’s lecturing us about the importance of being on time. Irony at its finest, to me. But, like I said, nobody was paying attention anyway, except for me. So nobody was paying attention when he continued on:

“Character. That’s a good word. Especially in the world of a journalist. You have to define your own character in this world, you know. You know, class, your character shapes what kind of reporter you will turn out to be. It will set you apart from all the rest. Your character will determine what kind of stories you cover, how you’ll cover them, how far you’re willing to go to turn that story from a good one into a great one. You know, as a reporter, it’s a struggle to have character. The real question is, how far are you willing to go to defend yours? Or, more importantly, will you have one at all?”

Still nothing. Nobody really seemed to be paying any mind at all, still, to what he was saying. So I decided to stop paying attention as well. We all tuned him out and faced our computers, opening up word documents in order to finish our latest story that was due by the end of class.

But then my teacher spoke again: “Forget about your stories today, class. We’re going to try something different.”

This intrigued me, and that’s what I like about the media world—that’s what draws me. There is no set plan or system for doing things in the media world. Stories are sudden. Action is sudden. And they both can change with not so much as a blink of an eye. News can arise with one tick of a clock. And whose responsibility is it to make sure that news is covered, captured on paper or film or somewhere, no matter where you are, or what you’re doing? Yours.

Now he had the full attention of our entire class, and so he continued. He bent down and pulled a paper out of his briefcase. It was a noticeably older issue of a newspaper. The color had faded to a stale yellow. The pictures were blotchy and warn. The edges were torn. I watched as he tucked the folded up paper under his arm and wondered why he pulled it out in the first place if he didn’t plan on sharing with us the significance of the issue. I watched as he bent over his briefcase again and pulled out another piece of paper—this time a picture—a new picture printed on fresh photo paper. The colors were bright and appealing, the edges crisp. He unfolded the picture and, this time, held it up in front of the class.

We turned from our stories to look at the picture. The room was silent as we all stared in shock at the picture. Nobody moved. Everyone’s full attention was now at the front of the classroom. Our teacher scanned over our horror-stricken faces. He had a smile on his, but said nothing. He was taking in the situation. He waited five minutes before he asked us a simple question: “What do you all think of this picture?”

Disgraceful was a word the girl next to me used to describe what she thought of it. Disgusting was another word muttered from a guy in the back of the room. Someone else asked if it was Photoshopped. The girl sitting closest to the teacher let out a gasp. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to think. In all honesty, I was trying to think of a time when I saw another picture just as haunting as this one, but I drew a blank.

“Ms. Cooper,” the teacher started.
“Yes?” I said.
“What do you think of this picture?”

I took my time answering. I studied the picture again. It was a picture of a fireman. He had soot all over his face and dribbles of sweat coming down under his hat, his expression a sad one. Behind the shadows casted over his face, one could see his frown. He was looking down at something he was holding tightly in his arms. It was baby. But not just any baby—a baby he rescued from the fire. A baby that had been burnt terribly. Blood covered his head, bruises and scratches covered his arms. I studied it again and felt the knots in my stomach tie tighter.

“It’s traumatizing.” I said.
“Do you have any idea where this picture is from?”
“No, Sir,” I said.
“It’s from the Oklahoma City bombing,” he told me.

He also said the picture was published in the newspaper he held under his arms, and a lot of other famous newspapers around the United States. That made me sick to my stomach, and I guess he could tell by the sour expression on my face that he knew I felt that way. So he kept on picking on me.

“Where in the newspaper would you put this picture?”
“You want me to respond to that?”
“Obviously.”

I knew the answer I would give, and I knew the answer he was looking for, but the two responses varied across the board. I was silent.

“Let’s try another question,” he said.
“Where do you think this showed up in the newspapers that published it?”
That I could answer. “On the front page,” I said.

He asked how many other people agreed with me thinking it showed up on the front page. Nobody raised a hand. Nobody said a word. Some people shook their heads. The teacher pulled out the newspaper and slowly unfolded it. He held it up and showed the class. On the front page was the picture of the fireman holding the little baby. Large. And in color.

“Now let me ask you one more time, Ms. Cooper. Where would you place it?”

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