Setting my future in stone: a life-changing week in Washington D.C.

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I toss my 20 pound red suitcase onto one of the two beds in my hotel room – the one that seems to be undisturbed by my still-anonymous roommate. I throw my wrinkled travel clothes into a pile, already soiling the room with my light blue t-shirt and black leggings. However, there is no time to worry about the mess as I throw on a fresh dress and cardigan and slip into my flip flops on my way out the door.

This constant rushing between destinations would be characteristic of my week in Washington D.C. for the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism conference. I was fortunate enough to be one of 51 students (one from each state and D.C.) selected to attend the conference for five days full of journalism.

Every second counted, and every second was one to remember. I just did my best to be a sponge and soak it all in.

I knew I was in the right place on the first night when we arrived at the Newseum. Among our first collective activities was a trivia game, in which most students knew an obscene amount about the history of journalism, among other things.

I realized that the people I was surrounded by were quite similar to me. I was about to spend the week with some of the most enthusiastic journalism nerds in the country, and I was excited.

The rest of the conference consisted of the 51 of us hanging onto the words of professional journalists, photographers and other people of the media which the program directors had organized for us.

After the presentations, we always had too many questions and wanted too many individual pictures than the time scheduled into the program would warrant, and the speakers were torn away and replaced while we were still hungry for more. Which, of course, is to be expected when you are sitting mere dozens of feet away from people like Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press,” Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill from PBS Newshour and former White House press secretary Ron Nessen.

Going into the conference, I knew that it would change my perspective of journalism and fuel my passion for it. Even so, I could have never gauged just how much it would.

For instance, I always knew it was important to be objective in news reporting. That is one of the basics of newswriting which is taught right off the bat.

I was captivated when Woodruff and Ifill described the importance of keeping bias out of reporting in ways which I had never thought of or heard before.

Initially, one of the two stated that “there is no such thing as objectivity; we are the sum total of our experiences.” What makes the difference, then, is that people don’t want to know a reporter’s opinion. When people go to get the facts, they would much rather determine their own opinion based on the straight facts than be spoon-fed what their opinion “should be” based on the reporter’s beliefs. Therefore, a reporter inserting their opinion into a news story greatly decreases the quality of the journalism.

While I knew all of this before, hearing it straight from two esteemed professional journalists from a different perspective which offered the “why” component deeply impacted my understanding and respect for objectivity in the media.

The conference also changed my perspective of myself and made me realize just how well journalism suits me as a career. After bouts of insecurity about my career aspirations, I mentally solidified that journalism was the route for me.

Being a member of a student newspaper, I spend much of my time surrounded by people with strong, well-informed opinions on countless issues in modern times. I, on the other hand, can never seem to make up my mind to passionately argue for any side of an issue. Though it is imperative that no opinion sneaks its way into a story, I always considered myself a weaker and less intelligent than my fellow staff members because of my personal objectivity.

In our session with Woodruff and Ifill, however, my opinion of this characteristic changed. In being a fair reporter, the pair said it is vital to “keep your mind open to the fact that there can be another defendable point of view.”

Thus I realized that my hesitance to choose sides of any social or political debate would actually work in my favor as an acting journalist. In fact, I realized being a news reporter is a perfect career path for someone with my sense of open-mindedness and restraint from judgement.

Other aspects of the conference simply made me excited about pursuing journalism.

I have always been enthusiastic about learning about the Vietnam war and its press coverage, so there couldn’t have been a more fitting presenter for me than Ron Nessen, who was a correspondent during the Vietnam war as well as the White House Press Secretary to President Gerald Ford.

Nessen spoke and answered equal amounts of questions about each of these jobs, and I clung to every word he said about each, but paid special attention to everything he said about being a war correspondent. As it is, I aspire to report on wars and international hostilities sometime during my career, so his stories and advice painted a picture of what my future could be like.

I asked him what he would say to someone considering being a war correspondent in modern times, and he said “be careful.” I undoubtedly will take that advice to heart.

Our tour of USA Today was similarly exciting, as I could imagine myself walking the halls as a working journalist.

Nothing beats that feeling.

We got to see all different parts of USA Today and talk to people from various departments, including news, video, interactives and the investigative team.

Long-term, my goal is to become an investigative journalist, collecting massive amounts of data and information from various sources and studies in order to narrow it down and give the public vital, in-depth information.

That is exactly what we saw at the investigative team headquarters, where a woman showed us the interactive story they were compiling on gun violence.  

Yet again, while physically speaking with a member of the investigative team I realized that my already existing abilities made reporting a perfect pursuit for me. No doubt, the conference showed me just how well journalism suited me.

There is nothing better than being able to hear firsthand accounts of the job you have dreamt of for years from the mouths of people who have an abundance of experience in it.
From the talks to the following discussions, from the examples to the tours, everything about the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference taught me more about journalism and made me more excited than ever to dive in.