Thursday, August 18, 2011

Change The World

I was having a tiff with an acquaintance the other day. It was the most recent in a long list of writer/subject scuffles that I've had to trudge through with various people. The difficulty in my profession is that n0 one gives you a second thought when you're writing about someone else, but hates you with a fiery passion when you write about them (whether your facts are accurate or not).

During the exchange this individual said "It's funny how you think you're changing the world behind a keyboard." Now, he meant me specifically meaning YOU but in that statement is a sub-textual doubt of the ability of writers, all writers, to bring about social change.

I don't claim to have done it, but I still believe that anyone, anywhere is capable of changing the world, for good or ill. There are many ways. You change the world with a microphone, with a gun, with a camera and with a pen (the anolog counterpart of The Keyboard).

I had a copy of the above poster near my desk when I was editor in chief of The Utah Statesman. I don't know if my staff ever got the metaphor but I kept it there in the spirit of "The pen is mightier than the sword." As journalists, words are our guns, and if used properly they can do a lot of good, but if mishandled the results can be disastrous.

But back to the point, changing the world. This individual is not the first I've come across to attempt to trivialize the impact of the written word. Businessmen in particular love to point out the financial problems facing modern journalism (which are not as dire as they would have you think). At every corner people sneer at journalism as an archaic relic of the past.

What they don't see is that all societal knowledge is spread by journalists. Ask yourself, how did you find out about September 11th? I heard it on the radio on my way to school, once there, I watched it on the TV news. For some people, they heard it from a friend, but where did their friend hear it?

Here's a positive example. On Tuesday, KSL and a few other Salt Lake media outlets reported that a new playground at a deaf and blind school had been vandalized. Wednesday morning, dozens of unsolicited volunteers arrived with cleaners and power washers at the ready to go to work.

In Utah, we're receiving a lot of attention due to the Mormon Moment. Huntsman and Romney are racing for the white house and a smash broadway play about Missionaries is raking in the dough. How do I know that? I read about it. How do I know that Brian David Mitchell was sentenced to life in prison? Well, I was at the courthouse, but I wasn't at the courthouse for Warren Jeffs who also got sentenced to life in prison. I read about that in the news.

Unless you are directly involved in the subject, or closely related to those directly involved, you find out about the world around you through the media via a chain reaction of hear-say. And whether it be written or spoken, it is all the same.

Stepping back from journalism, let's talk about the power of writing. Upton Sinclair helped usher in a wave of workplace safety laws, including child labor regulations, when he published "The Jungle." The writings of John Locke heavily influenced the language in The Declaration of Independence and his adage of "life, liberty and property" (changed to the pursuit of happiness) are the foundation of our society. Martin Luther brought about the protestant reformation by nailing his 95 Thesis to a door. And, lest we forget, how about the Bible, Torah, Qur'an?

Or, in a more lighthearted example. How much of modern entertainment is based on the writing's of William Shakespeare? Answer: A ton, and then some you don't even notice (seriously, it's crazy).

Writing is power. Today's writing is done on keyboard. In my opinion then, there's no better way to change the world (if that's what you're going for).

Now, let's DO talk journalists.

President Richard Nixon resigned in large part due to the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein. Edward R. Murrow shone a light on the evils of the McCarthy era. In a more ambiguous sense, the Gay Rights movement can trace its beginning to the Stonewall riots, and newspaper coverage helped drive the debate, as it still does today.

Not all change has to be social rights and political corruption. The written word can empower individuals, unite communities and bring about tolerance and understanding. It can promote local business, it can spread a message and it can be passed on like a venereal disease.

Martin Luther King Jr. made his "I have a dream" speech into a microphone, but I read it. Hitler massacred millions with guns and tanks, but I read about it. Man walked on the moon, but I heard about it from someone who saw it on TV. Rwanda was torn apart by a civil war motivated by racial cleansing, I saw a movie about it. A restaurant downtown serves chicken and waffles, I read a review about it.

The world changes everyday, and I, for one, believe that anyone, anywhere, can be a part of that.


  1. I agree with you 100%. Great article.

  2. Writers DO change the world, even by changing how one person thinks. Consider, even the people who are pissed off because of your writing, you have profoundly affected what that person thinks, even if they completely disagree with you. This is why I believe that good writing produces a deep emotional response; even if the response is bad, it caused the person to think (or react) deeply about the subject, deeply enough to cause a powerful emotional response. Poor writing, on the other hand, produces apathy or indifference.

    That being said, there are types of writing that are supposed to go unnoticed. Self-help writing works best when it achieves the goal of helping someone do what one needs to do without thinking about how the writing helped them accomplish that. But in general, writing about an idea or about a story works best when it produces an emotional response.

    So my thoughts? Kudos to you for getting your acquaintance riled up ;) (And yes, I feel your pain that writers are often not taken seriously.)

  3. Very inspiring. It resonates with the writer in me!