Why it sucks to be a journalist (and why people do it anyway)

In the West, the news is a commodity, a product. And the customer is always right. If you’re not giving the customer what they want – you’re usually screwed.

In places like Russia, the news is more like a government-owned resource. And the government gets to set the agenda on how said resource will be exploited. If you’re not giving the government what it wants (or getting a little too uppity or bothersome) – you’re usually screwed.

I’ve worked for both English-language Russian state media and Western independent media. I’ve been lucky so far. Lucky for having intelligent editors who set good standards, for being able to speak my mind, for being able to walk away when facing censorship. Lucky that I’m still, at this stage in the game, able to feed my family (on a diminishing income). Lucky that I’m not an exploited freelancer in a conflict zone (for now, anyway).

Im-not-anybodys ygritte says

But the more online harassment I experience, the more threats I receive, the more insults (many of them gender-based, others aimed at my complicated cultural and ethnic heritage) I hear, the more I have to wonder if I’m tough enough.

When I was writing about the fateful 2010 winter election in Kiev, there was an incident I’ve been loath to talk about. Perhaps a couple of my friends know. It made me feel vulnerable and unprofessional at the time. I certainly didn’t want to complain and make it seem as though I was afraid of anything.

I had argued with a security guard near a polling station. He insisted I couldn’t be on the sidewalk, talking to people. He thumped me on my chest and pushed me hard. I went flying on the black ice that seemed to encrust every surface that winter, landing on my back, hitting my head in the process. After the immediate shock and pain wore off, I let a woman who had just voted help me up. The guard had scampered off. I went back to doing my job.

The incident stayed with me, because the pain stayed. I had problems with my back before, but that one bad fall caused chronic pain that lasted for over a year. After I got pregnant, I had to seek out specialists capable of helping pregnant women with severe back pain. The pain sapped my strength and bank account. It still flares up every once in a while. X-rays so far have been inconclusive, and I am convinced that a part of it starts in the mind. Chronic pain is complicated, but it has its roots. Some are abstract.

People don’t like journalists – for reasons are both abstract and concrete. People take, ah, liberties with journalists, especially in countries with brittle regimes and a high tolerance for violence. People don’t like it when journalists tell them what they don’t want to hear. People don’t like it that journalists take money from either governments or corporations or NGOs – i.e., people don’t like it that journalists have a powerful need to eat every once in a while.

I’ve been both a reporter and a pundit – a reporter takes risks in the field, only to be shouted at for bias. A pundit feels like Cassandra with tongue in place, but no one listening anyway. Everyone is down in the comments section, bitching about how you’re the wrong ethnicity to have an opinion on some matter, while others are busy e-mailing you detailed odes on how awesome it would be when you’re finally gang-raped.

“You go out there and do your job!” People shout at me on the internet, from the comfort of their homes. I’m remembering the first story I did for The Moscow News – on a neo-Nazi stabbing in southwest Moscow. I visited the scene of the crime, talked to the neighbors of the victim, talked to the crying wife on the phone outside. On my way back, I had to walk through an apple orchard at dusk. Two guys began following me. They weren’t neo-Nazis, they were thugs, enraged at seeing a reporter asking questions “without permission” on their territory. Didn’t I know I could be “punished”? There was no one else around. We were in the middle of a major city at peacetime, but in a second it was brought home to me – how unsafe I was. I let them catch up with me, joked with them, bummed a cigarette off of one of them, discussed my story. I smiled at them. They eventually began smiling back.

Female journalists are lectured on “using our looks” and following “the principles of feminism.” We’re still seen as women first and journalists second – hello, “mother of three” headline! – but we must pretend as though this isn’t really so in our work.

In the company of bad men, however, there are no illusions. You appeal directly to their strength. A strong man wouldn’t need to prove his strength by hurting a girl-reporter, would he? Except sometimes, he would.

Our readers hate us. We hate each other. When I joke about dick-measuring contests on Twitter, I’m not really joking. Professional solidarity usually only appears when someone gets their head cut off – to be quickly forgotten.

Everyone knows that you don’t get ahead by being the best. You get ahead by proving that the others are worthless.

If you’re a young woman, prepare for the possibility of getting harassed, raped, or simply used by colleagues you look up to. And then, of course, they’ll tell their friends that you only got that one gig because [insert body part, outfit, etc]. Hoity toity male journalists will punish you for admiring them as surely as they will punish you for not admiring them.

girls see more blood ygritte says

(And if you’re ever, say, attacked while doing your job – men will write hit-pieces about it, minimizing your suffering while making your entire job about your looks. And when you start getting older, people will begin getting mad at you about it – and asking why the hell are you still on TV, you fat cow)

In times of conflict and tension, you will be seen as a tool first and a person second – by everyone from the security services to Jim-Bob who’s never frozen his ass off at a demo that swiftly erupts into violence when the boys with the batons move in, but will still write your bosses and demand you be fired for your “pro-[insert whatever it is that Jim-Bob doesn’t like at that moment] coverage.”

In a conflict zone, you will be accused of propaganda if any particular side appears to trust you – though trust is how you get people talking, how you get them to let you in, and how you get them to not kill you.

The late Andrei Stenin got the pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine to trust him – so now I’m constantly being told that he deserved his death. Meanwhile a friend has reported extensively on the right-wing Azov battalion on the Ukraine side – only to be accused of being a “Nazi sympathizer” in the process.

When you acknowledge the pressure you are under, you’re weak and hysterical. When you don’t acknowledge it, it begins to do your head in.

I was in a bar in Kiev with a cousin last month, when your typical Douchebag Expat Stereotype who’d only been in the country for a couple of weeks but had oodles of opinions he was dying to share sidled up to us. In the course of trying not to talk to him, I found out that he follows the work of a friend of mine who has been reporting on the armed conflict in the Donbass. “He’s just so biased! And so cocky!” Douchebag Expat Stereotype ranted.

“So why don’t you go out there and show him how it’s done,” I replied – then instantly regretted my words.

The last thing you want to do is give a self-assured blowhard the idea that he can do this kind of job.

Meanwhile, one of the defining characteristics of the human race is our need to tell stories, to bear witness – and to pass the information on. I think that people tend to get into journalism because they’re human. And a little crazy. It’s a calling – in the sense that a pied piper is playing a tune somewhere. You stumble off the safer path and follow the song. You live to regret it and you live to love it – sometimes in equal measure.

but first well live ygritte says

18 thoughts on “Why it sucks to be a journalist (and why people do it anyway)

  1. Very good piece. You kind of forgot the important details such as how hard it is to your makeup well applied and heels not break while chasing krokodil addicts down Moscow sewers, you know, the vital information. :p
    The reality is though I admire your work and how you do it. Not only do I find your articles well written, absorbing and informative, you have a pretty unique writing style that conveys the human condition in a way that can feel I’m directly connected to subject matter, even if I have never injected krokodil in a Moscow sewer.
    You’re appreciated. If the bank balance doesn’t show you, if people do their best to make you feel that’s not the case, know it is. I may not always like what you write from the perspective of my side of whichever political event you’re covering, but what you write is an important part of knowing what’s going on and I value your insight.
    While it is not my place to tell you to carry on or give up, and I know no words can give you the strength to carry on with your journey of discovery through the obstacles you face, I do hope you will continue. In a world where you’re expected, even by the women supposedly trying to make life easier for your gender, to fit into a certain mould of behaviour and thinking, I’m glad you’ve chosen to keep true to yourself in your writing. .
    The passion you have for the written word oozes from everything you compose (to the point where even your tweets about what you’ve seen on the Moscow metro that day become beautiful mental images), as such I know it’s probably futile to tell you at the end of the day they really don’t matter when it comes abuse of any kind.
    Try not to forget we need you more than you need our shit, and that’s only because you do it so well and do it by tackling the stuff we’re afraid to face.
    All the best Natalia.

  2. First of all, a “hell yes” to almost everything that Desmond up there just said.

    Second of all, you don’t owe the bastards anything, Nat, but you owe it to yourself to make sure you keep your voice. Your writing is as beautiful as your eyes – and believe me, knowing the people that have drowned in them, that’s saying a lot. (If I’m allowed my own melodramatic-as-shit moment).

    Good luck, stay strong, keep going.

  3. Thank for sharing. When you mentioned the two thugs following you through the apple orchard, and that you SLOWED DOWN, and then smiled and bummed a smoke, thats when I got a clear impression of your process on the ground, and thats how it is. Theres no other option but to be ‘face first’ when dealing with possible threats like that. Especially if you carry the sensitivities of a writer and a journalist, and of course being a woman in the modern world, that somehow has the appetite and skill to spend time in zones where only the most primitive laws apply. That ciigarrette and that smile was the deciding factor, most probably, in that situation. Tact and a lack of fear. Well done. Your only going to get better, unfortunately the world is not, and it only takes a second to make a mistake. Keep safe. I will try to get a bigger picture of your work, and maybe make this comment a bit more legitimate. Thank you.

  4. For every shit comment from a disgruntled “fan”, there are thousands who appreciate the work of journalists. Writing like all art is subjective, even if there are cold hard facts and photos to back it up there are still people with opinions to the contrary. Your work, Natalia is always appreciated and interesting to read. Just stay safe and keep writing. Thank you for your hard work.

  5. Someone like me will NEVER get published in Guardian/Newsweek, but I need to have sympathy for the woman who’s done it effortlessly?

    As an ordinary woman, I need to have sympathy for someone like you bc parts of your body are occasionally talked about by “male colleagues,” while you’re enjoying so called “pretty privilege” the rest of the time?

    As a person who can’t afford travel for the last ten years, I need to feel sorry for you because you got to write about exotic locales like Jordan and the Ukraine?

    Save your self-pity. I’m not falling for it.

  6. I mean it. Most people will never write for the Guardian, most people will never catch the eye of a “hoity toity male journalist” and they won’t write about Eastern Europe of the Middle East for international readerships.

    I’ve followed your writing for some time. You have opportunities and talents most people are denied as a rule. Stop feeling sorry for yourself because a security guard hit you.

  7. Ann @ SLLCC

    Your two comments above are exactly what Natalia is talking about. Natalia raises legitimate grievances about being a woman in the white-male club of journalists, and you dismiss it as self-pity.

    “Stop feeling sorry for yourself because a security guard hit you.”

    Look: Natalia might have gotten a vertebral hairline fracture or even a compression fracture because a security guard thought it was his job to injure her. If she does have a compression fracture, that’s going to stay with her for the rest of her life, and the constant pain can be extremely demoralizing. Most white-collar jobs don’t have that cost of doing business.

    “… most people will never catch the eye of a ‘hoity toity male journalist’ …”

    Did you actually read the blog post? Natalia is saying that, at nearly the same time, she’s both objectified by male journalists and also has her beauty professionally held against her. What you call “pretty privilege” is a no-win situation for Natalia’s professional future (or so I read the blog post). The bulk of us “ordinary people” never face that professional obstacle.

    Otherwise, I wholeheartedly endorse the first five comments supporting Natalia’s post. Stay safe, Natalia, and keep fighting back.

  8. Thank you so much for writing this, I’ve wanted to quote whole paragraphs of it verbatim, particularly to the more senior male ‘colleagues’ who excuse and/or uphold sexism and sexist double standards. I find the comments on your ethnicity very striking (as much as I know it is easy for me to say this, when I’m not the one getting the direct abuse) because it shows how fundamentalists/ nationalists of all kinds can’t conceptually cope with complexity. Just like sexists who see women as objects can’t cope with the complexity of real women, so need to fall back to virgin/whore dichotomies (I don’t have a big enough public profile to get much abuse, but I get both ‘frigid feminist cow’ & ‘worthless western whore’ often enough to be amused by trolls’ unresolved virgin/whore issues). I think this is all a testament to your work — your writing and your stories and complex and nuanced and human, and that makes idiots uncomfortable. Not that that is much consolation when you’re dealing with the shit, but hopefully something to remember.

    I also liked how, underneath the initial anger at basic injustices, this piece is sort of sad and hopeful, at how great it would be if journalists actually did have professional solidarity, and had each others’ backs, in the long term and the day to day. I really, really wish that would happen.

    Thanks for writing, & take care! Heather

  9. You are an inspiration. Such a great writer and historian(I know you didn’t mean to be). I’m old, I’ve traveled but it was for pleasure. Your blog reminds me when I was young, trying to break into the male glass bottom(that’s what they called it then). I broke through it and did well but after 2 years realized I wanted a family too. I was punished severly for it because back then you weren’t allowed both. So women have never had it easy. It’s time for women to take over I think. Men make things too hard and don’t keep our chiltrens lives in mind. There has to be a better solution than bombing and war?

  10. I’ve been incredibly lucky to seem to have dodged the bullet on sexist bullshit and threats. Apart from the trolls who make stupid comments below my articles I seem to be free from the worst of the abuse that many of my other colleagues receive. It’s awful that I seem to be the exception.

    I say the above not to boast – if that is something one can even boast about – but just to acknowledge that we have not had the same experience, even though we’re both women journalists. But a lot of the other things you said about journalism resonates so much.

    Sometimes it seems like I am plugging away at a career that is ultimately going to go nowhere. The job will never be done but the income will pretty much never grow. With more and more freelancers, or aspiring journalists, employers can take their pick without needing to offer better terms. And the media landscape appears to veer further and further away from what we would like it to be – more stories, less boobs. More on-the-ground experiences, less pandering to the powerful.

    And yet I find it difficult to think of anything else that I would rather be doing. It’s a difficult balance; I do this because I love it and would probably do it even without the money, but because I do this for a living I need people to respect that and not take advantage.

  11. I commend you for your struggles and hard work as a journalist. I am not one myself. I’m what you state as a “customer.” And also been an American, I have been very dissatisfied with the product that has been sold to me by this group of nothing more than propaganists in the Western media. I would like to suggest a book by former CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson, who just published a book called, “Stonewalled: My Fight For the Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation and Harassment in Obama’s Washington.” She writes about the horrible things done to her, from politicians, to other journalists and from her own bosses. It is very enlightening and should give you more courage to continue your quest as a reporter. Best wishes, from America!

  12. I would like to commend you on your courage and dedication in the field of reporting. I would like to recommend a book by former CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson called, “Stonewalled: My Fight For the Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation and Harassment in Obama’s Washington.” I will give you the courage to continue. And also give you a better perspective of how the news is actually reported here in the U.S. It will no less than shock you. Hope it helps. Keep up the good fight! Best wishes from America!

  13. I just wanted to say thank you for doing what you do. Sitting here in Canada in my warm kitchen reading your words, admiring your courage and your truth. Truth is so very, very important right now.

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