On July 4th, journalist Heather Bryant published an important article on Medium that I think everyone should read and think about. Her story should make all of us uncomfortable, not just about the state of journalism, but also about how each of us thinks about class and the people around us doing under-appreciated, but vital work.
Below are some excerpts from the piece, but it’s worth reading the entire thing.
I was talking to this person whom I’d just met. They told me about their job and where they worked. They asked me about mine. I told them I’d worked in public media in Alaska before moving to the Lower 48. I was a couple of months from wrapping up my time as a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford. They asked about what I worked on and I explained my research around collaboration in journalism and that I intended to continue working in this space after the fellowship ended.
“Well, what does your husband do?”
“He’s a truck driver and a mechanic.”
“Yeah, right now he drives for a trash company.”
“That must be…an interesting perspective to have around.”
While they didn’t explicitly say it, the person was very much thrown off by the nature of my husband’s work. I was left with a very strong feeling they were expecting a more middle-class answer than a garbage worker. Their facial reaction has been stuck in my head for a while now. Surprise. A little confusion. And just enough distaste to notice. Obviously, this one instance isn’t representative of an entire industry. But it is a symptom.
Journalism has a class problem. We know this. The best internships are for students with the resources to work unpaid or with low pay in some of the most expensive cities in the country. Conferences are expensive and often hosted in expensive cities making it difficult for smaller newsrooms to send reporters. The bulk of the jobs are clustered in major metropolitan areas. That’s not to say people without means don’t make it into journalism. They do. But it’s a longer, rougher road with far fewer people making it to the end.
She touches on something truly fundamental to journalism these days. Why is it that so many of the fellow journalists she interacts with have a similar reaction when they find out what her husband does? It’s partly because so few of them have spouses, parents, siblings or close friends who perform these sorts of jobs. For instance, let’s say Heather one day bumps into a journalist whose brother who is also a truck driver. Think about how differently that conversation would go. There’d be an instant connection and understanding. Instead, it appears most other journalists she comes across react with near shock that someone who drives trucks somehow could be married to a journalist who went to Stanford. This is in fact, pretty troubling.
The ironic thing about all this is that so many white-collar jobs employing highly educated ivy leaguers are, to borrow a phrase from David Graeber, total bullshit jobs. Jobs that exist for little obvious reason other than to keep people busy or extract rents from society. Then here’s a guy who’s performing a physically exhausting function that actually adds clear societal value, and he’s looked down upon. What does that tell you about our culture?
While the above is troubling, the following paragraph is the one that really stuck out in my head.
There’s a recurring theme in the work stories he shares with me. His routes take him all over the Bay Area. Through the nice neighborhoods of the upper middle class and the extremely well off gated communities. Through the working class communities, the rougher parts of Oakland and the areas where the businesses are surrounded by the homeless. It’s fascinating how people treat him based on only their knowledge that he is the trash guy. The vast majority of disrespect, rudeness and condescension happens in what many would call the nicer neighborhoods. Kindness and appreciation, people giving him a cold drink on a hot day or just saying thanks happens most in the rougher neighborhoods and the working class areas.
I can’t say this surprises me, but it’s still depressing. It’s those people who have the least to give, and the least ability to be generous, who are most kind and generous to the truck driver. It also hammers home a theme I have been increasingly focused on in these pages — that the positive impact of simply being a nicer person in your every day interactions cannot be overstated.
Most of the wealthy people who treat the trash guy disrespectfully don’t think twice about it. They definitely didn’t think about how it might have affected his day, and that he might take that feeling of disrespect home with him which might then affect his entire family. That negative energy might then become transferred to people his extended family go on to interact with in the hours and days ahead, and so on. The negative impact of seemingly trivial acts of rudeness reverberate far beyond the initial act itself.
In contrast, what if members of the wealthier communities had treated him with unmistakeable kindness? This feeling would reverberate in the exact opposite manner. In other words, every action, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has real world consequences, both good and bad. All of this behavior clearly had an impact on Heather, otherwise she wouldn’t have written the article in the first place. If we think about life every single day from this perspective, it will help all of us to become far more conscious of how we behave.
She ends the piece with the following.
When he and I are meeting a new group of people in my industry, he asks me how to talk about his job. Because he knows that sometimes it’s better to say something generic like “trucking industry” than “garbage man.” He worries that he might embarrass me in front of other journalists.
If that conference interaction is how a journalist responds to my husband’s job while idly chatting, how do they cover the sanitation worker that ends up in a story they are working on? If talking about someone to that person’s spouse isn’t enough to cause one to mask aversion, how do they talk about people to whom they feel even more distance from? What does this mean for our audience’s ability to trust us?
While one of the most important takeaways from her piece is certainly the undeniable fact that journalism has an elitism problem, there’s another, perhaps even more important message.
Try to treat everyone you meet with the same degree of decency and kindness. Whether they are rich or poor, clean or dirty. Whether they have a graduate degree from Harvard, or dropped out of high school. Whether they can help you, or are in need of help. The world would certainly improve if we all did that, and it can’t hurt to try.