14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 3 November 2019 – [This text was delivered at the graduation ceremony for the Master of Journalism of the Spanish newspaper El País.] More than a decade ago I crossed a thin red line and took a path that – even if I had wanted it to – has no turning back: I went from being a citizen who consumed the little information that came to her hands, to becoming a blogger, reporter and a news source in a country like Cuba, with 11 million inhabitants thirsty to know what is happening inside and outside its territory.
I did not decide, I did not take a minute to reflect, I did not even weigh what would come after taking this step, simply journalism knocked on my door and there was no way not to open up, to not let it pass or to prevent myself from turning my life upside down. There was so much to tell that it would have been an act of civic apathy and reprehensible indifference not to have assumed the responsibility of narrating my country.
Those were the years when the Arab Springs were forged and when the emergence of smartphones and social networks made one think that a screen, a keyboard and a brief message on Twitter were enough to awaken consciences and change realities. But it was also the beginning of a period of deep crisis for journalism.
Thus, years arrived when the media seemed to have lost its way. A single person, with a cell phone in hand, could achieve the most important coverage of an event and many times the teams of reporters, photographers and editors arrived late for what was already a story broadcast to exhaustion in forums, chats and Facebook walls.
The so-called “native digital” media emerged, while others became hybrid creatures, almost information chimeras that still, today, try to enhance their digital versions while attempting to keep the paper copies alive, which in most cases have been relegated to a second place less dynamic and important.
Also, a decade ago, many were betting that the new journalism that was going to emerge from all these changes would have to be ever faster and immediate, with greater integration of audiovisual elements, more interactive, more democratic and – of course – flooding social networks and the new content dissemination channels. Most of the time in that equation the central point of any reporting work was underestimated, beyond ornaments or technological tools: the story.
In the end, we are storytellers. Our field is not fiction, as in the case of novelists or playwrights, because we tell real stories, what happened a few minutes or several decades ago, our strength based on truthfulness, where we convey certainty. A well told story, with beautiful language, with a variety of sources consulted and backed by research, remains the core of our work.
And to tell a story it is not enough to have the luck or the patience to find an event worthy of our readers. It is not enough to use gerunds well and master a vocabulary that makes the reporting, the chronicle or the simplest informative note a pleasure for the eyes and the intellect. No, it is not enough. Nor is it enough that we publish stories characterized by novelty and revelation. Language and ethics make up the main cement that must unite all the elements of good journalism.
First, the mastery of the language (in our case of the beautiful Castilian language) is one of those subjects in which no one ever graduates completely, but in which good grades can be achieved through reading, linguistic curiosity to inquire about the meaning and origin of words, an unspoken acceptance of imported words and the boldness to combine terms and break with the idea that journalism should be written in a dry, direct language and one that never soars.
But ethics, this is more difficult to achieve because it is born from personal commitment to objectivity and truth. It also comes from understanding the human measure of a journalist in a society and accepting the responsibility we assume with each disseminated reportage.
The ethics in the press begins by being honest in the handling of the reporting raw material, conscientious in the verification of data and consistent with the reality of what we are reporting.
In the case of authoritarian societies, where information is still seen as treason and the press has only two possible positions: applaud the power or be condemned to exist in illegality and harassment. Information ethics also does not give way to pressures or self-censorship. In those regimes, allergic to information freedom, the reporter becomes an activist for truth.
Although new technologies have partially pierced the information monopoly walls erected by dictatorships, these years have also served for us to understand that political and social changes need much more than touch screens and calls on the networks. On the other hand, the same devices that are used for a liberating and democratizing purpose are also used by the political police to monitor activists, control the independent press and distort information.
Let’s not fool ourselves. There is no more effective ‘fake news’ and post-truth factory than populism, nor a laboratory from which the most finished and even “convincing” hoaxes come than within an authoritarian regime. Hence, exercising ethical and quality journalism in these circumstances is of vital importance in these times.
The most worrying thing is that these predatory attitudes of information freedom are not exclusive to authoritarian systems, but also extend to democracies. The exercise of journalism is now in the spotlight of too many powers.
In countries like Mexico and Honduras, a piece of reporting can cost an author their life; while in nations like Cuba, the ruling party boasts that journalists are not killed on the Island, although the truth is that they have killed journalism by force of threats, arbitrary arrests, confiscations of the tools of the trade and pressures to go into exile.
On the other hand, in societies where citizens see violations of their rights every day, and where there is no separation of powers and the courts are fiefdoms of a group that administers justice at will, the independent press (here it is worth using the qualifier “independent” given that these regimes are given to creating their own pseudo press or propaganda soundboard) it assumes new responsibilities. It becomes a loudspeaker for a gagged citizenship, with a share of heroism but also of the commitment that this role brings.
And how do young journalists fit into this complex scenario? What words of encouragement can I offer you for the path you have just started out on? Few and many. You have come to the press at a tipping point and time of doubts. You will disembark in newsrooms tormented by debts and obsession with ‘hits’; probably many of you will practice in societies where you will be playing with your lives, prison and prestige when publishing on certain topics. It is very likely that in certain circumstances you will avoid even confessing to others that you are journalists so as not to listen to the old epithets of “pencil pushers,” “news vultures,” “yellow journalists” or “fifth columnists.”
Your nights will become intense hours, you will never be able to look at a television screen, the front page of a newspaper or a digital site with that touch of healthy naiveté you once had; you will also learn that this is not a profession for making friends and that as you develop better skills animosity and criticism will grow around you. But also, you will enjoy the thrilling moment of following a story, the adrenaline rush that seizes you when you are only a few seconds or a click away from publishing a report on which you have worked for a long time.
You will enjoy that moment in which the publication of a story helps to improve reality, or correct an injustice or give voice to those who have long been silenced. They are brief moments, but they are strongly rewarding.
You will hate and love your editors, you will have to respond to the anger of some readers and also take responsibility for the reprisals suffered by your sources. You will drink more coffee than you can even imagine now and you will understand that in the face of any topic that you discuss in your articles there will always be someone who knows more than you about that matter and who will be there, carefully reading every line you publish, ready to find an error.
And when you believe that the day is over, because the text you have pampered like a child has already been delivered, edited and seen the light… and then you will have to start over at the beginning because a new day will come, with other stories to tell and an insatiable audience that awaits you. So I can only promise you: a lot of responsibility, little rest and even less boredom.
The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by now becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.