Constable: Why I must explain myself as a reporter like I explained my dad the farmer

  • My dad, Wilson Constable, holding me in this old photo taken at our family farm, was proud of being a farmer. But when I got to college, I realized that people had no idea what a farmer actually did. Today, people don't understand what reporters do.

    My dad, Wilson Constable, holding me in this old photo taken at our family farm, was proud of being a farmer. But when I got to college, I realized that people had no idea what a farmer actually did. Today, people don't understand what reporters do. Courtesy of Constable family

 
 
Posted2/28/2019 5:20 AM

My dad always found something noble in his career as a farmer. Starting with black dirt and a small seed, he would embrace engineering, chemistry, mechanics and his own sweat and innovation to work with, and against, nature to grow a crop to feed our family year after year. When I was a freshman in college, I learned that most Americans couldn't comprehend how rewarding that was for him.

"What's your dad's occupation?" asked the young man typing up my application to join a fraternity.

 

"Farmer," I replied.

"No. What does he do for a living?" the young man asked again.

He thought farmer was one of those 19th-century occupations such as buggywhip baron, blacksmith or barrel-maker that had no use in the modern world. I explained to him that farmer was still a thing. Certain that I was pulling his leg, he made me type "farmer" on the form.

In a history class we read Studs Terkel's classic "Working," in which the legendary author interviewed Americans about the jobs they did and how they felt about them. I was stunned when a show of hands revealed my classmates thought farmer was the worst job. I voted for prostitute and defended the calling of farmers.

Four decades later, I find myself in the same position, explaining that I really do make a living as a newspaper guy, and defending the occupation of reporter.

A new national poll commissioned by the Columbia Journalism Review shows Americans don't know what we do and don't trust us to do it.

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A whopping 60 percent of Americans and 70 percent of Republicans believe reporters get paid by their sources sometimes or very often. In four decades as a newspaper reporter, I've gotten paid a total of zero dollars from my sources. There was a time when I wrote about Magic Johnson's owning a company that made T-shirts celebrating Michael Jordan and the Bulls' championships, and those folks did ship me three of those T-shirts as a thank-you. I donated them to a charity resale shop.

When I meet a source at a coffee shop, I pay my share. When I covered a Jim Oberweis "victory" party years ago, I resisted the temptation to take free ice cream.

At the Daily Herald, reporters don't accept payments from sources, nor do we pay people to tell us their stories. We are your neighbors. You see us at school events, restaurants, shops and religious services. Many of our editors and reporters have spent countless hours this month interviewing candidates for local offices to give readers some facts and our endorsements.

One of the problems is that the media umbrella is far too big. There are differences among the Daily Herald, the National Enquirer, MSNBC, Fox News, NPR, TMZ, The New York Times, WGN news, Tomi Lahren, Randy Rainbow, Stephen Colbert, Rush Limbaugh, "Saturday Night Live," "60 Minutes," Bill O'Reilly, Terry Gross and Twitter twit Jacob Wohl, all of whom often are jammed into the same media tent.

I've written about lots of people with whom I strongly disagree, from abortion opponent Joseph M. Scheidler, founder of the Pro-Life Action League, to a local artist who loved President Donald Trump so much that she painted him as a great man with the world in his hands. We didn't treat each other as "enemies of the people," and I thought their stories were interesting.

More people have "hardly any confidence at all" in the press than have "a great deal of confidence." We reporters are even less trusted by people who are white and live in rural areas. I grew up white and rural, and I remember how I felt when I discovered other people didn't understand us. I wish we reporters could plant the seeds of change to correct the misunderstandings about our jobs.

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