Having been a member of the Georgetown Voice for over two years, I have gained more than just my fair share of snark and trendy t-shirts. Through all the hours of probing for the right quote, hunting for GUSA’s latest handiwork, and surviving merciless deadlines, I have built up some legitimate journalistic experience.
This summer, however, I caught a glimpse of life on the other side of the mirror: the press office. As an intern at the City of Chicago Mayor’s Press Office (MPO), I observed firsthand the intricate dance between communications director and news anchor, between press secretary and reporter. I lived the 24-hour news cycle.
From my first-row seat in the press office, I witnessed the rote and frustrating tasks of journalists and press staffers alike. I witnessed the misleading and manipulation of people and facts by both sides. And I stared dumbfounded as I watched a five-minute segment on the impending invasion of black bears in Illinois (with a total attendance of exactly one bear) for the sixth time that week. Despite the pencil pushing and misdirection, my three months at the MPO strengthened my interest in news media as a career.
As an intern, one of my main tasks was media monitoring. Any news concerning the mayor and City Hall had to be transcribed, formatted, and compiled into a daily digest for press staffers, policy gurus, and the mayor himself. My average daily schedule included watching five TV stations’ morning, midday, evening, and late night programs, as well as perusing Chicago’s four major publications.
I plunged headfirst into the news cycle. Outside my hours in the office, I felt the news cycle’s omnipresence: a day off is nonexistent in this line of work.
Media monitoring also revealed to me the threshold of what is considered “news” in the world of local TV. Shootings and accidents inevitably fill the first eight minutes, if not longer, of a 30-minute program. A particularly gruesome or strange incident will occupy the rest of the program, regardless of the magnitude of any national political news. Of course, this fact was no major realization for me, but still a reality under which I operated.
Another of my tasks was fielding phone calls from reporters, providing event details, and directing them to appropriate staffers. I dodged their attempts to trick me into divulging information the MPO was not ready to release. One intern was not so lucky and was quoted in an evening program as a “spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office.”
At press conferences, I dealt with the abrasiveness of the press corps in person. I understood it comes with the job, but I questioned whether I wanted a profession where such etiquette was standard, if not a necessity for success.
At the same time, I admired certain reporters for the hurdles they surmounted in the name of good reporting: submitting Freedom of Information Act requests, scheduling interviews, and persistent cold-calling. As I was the one answering calls, they had to get through me. More than a few times I claimed that the staffer they were looking for was out to lunch while staring directly at her.
Despite the harsh and absurd realities of news media as seen from my seat in the press office, I still am considering working in the industry.
My time at the MPO taught me the delicacy and malleability of the relay of information. A functioning, educated society demands reliable sources of information and, as a journalist, I could do my part by writing frankly and relevantly.
One might consider these two professions—press communications and news media—as two sides trapped in a game of deception, a tug-of-war to gain favorability with the public. I observed just a hint of the darker shades of these industries this summer, but herein lies exactly why news media is a worthwhile career—to endeavor to report news fairly and intelligently.
This past summer I witnessed print and TV reporters do just that: sifting through rhetoric, braving monotony, and overcoming dead-ends. Respectable reporters understand the weight of their job—a weight I came to more fully grasp this summer.
Giving people access to honest information, watching revolutions unfold firsthand, witnessing mankind steadily marching onward?
Sounds like a worthwhile career to me.
This article was first published in the Georgetown Voice on September 18, 2014. View it here.
Photo credit: Darren and Brad via Flicker.