“Why did you choose to study Journalism?” he initiated the conversation while we were waiting for our dinner. Having learned that I was from Vietnam, his question was more than a no-brainer icebreaker.
I was a media student with a degree in English linguistics. He was a prominent Australian young artist. We shared the same Vietnamese heritage, but not the same language—or even the same history.
I carefully considered the possible answers. At that time, I had just ended my two-year relationship with a major advertising agency in Saigon. Everything was going well but, working as a copywriter, I felt like betraying my own religious belief—one of the five Buddhist precepts that encourages us to refrain from lying and gossip.
So I packed everything up and headed to Melbourne. To study a master degree in media. To give myself more time to think.
“I like writing,” I finally said, “but I’m not confident enough to be an author. Every artist I know have their own distinct style, and I haven’t got that yet.”
“But can you really be a journalist in Vietnam?” he asked.
“Well, more and more international magazines are opening their offices in Vietnam, like Forbes or Cosmopolitan. They are looking for writers who can write fluently both in English and Vietnamese. I can get a good job there.”
“And what will you write about?”
“The latest cars and fashion trends, you know.” I recalled my years at the agency. The way I dressed was not very far from the 70s, but I could easily write about latest trends in Milan or Japan—keeping up to date with the world was part of my job.
“But do you really want to write about the latest cars or fashion trends?”
What followed was silence. Deep inside, I knew I wanted more than that. I wanted my works to have a long-term benefit to whoever would read it. And that meant it had to convey real meanings, not made up values coated in sugar by marketers. But I was not up to it. Yet.
“You seem to get it wrong,” he said, “From what I see, you’re a storyteller. You’re very natural at telling stories. You don’t need a so-called distinct style to be an artist.”
Eureka!—His words sparked something in me. Is it the role of the journalist? To tell stories worth telling. To make those stories reach a wider audience, and change perspectives.
In the following months, I engaged myself in more journalistic fieldworks. I reported the working condition of international students. I interviewed student’s advocacy. I took note of what’s going on in my university, my neighbourhood, and so forth. The more I listened to people, the more I believed we all had our battles to fight and our stories to tell.
Even when public trust in the media kept declining, hovering about 19% in 2013 (Roy Morgan, Australia), I started to see some values in my works, through the comments shared by the readers. The writing process felt more self-rewarding.
Journalism, however, was not a profession for everyone, even if that person could write quite well. Especially when that person was not comfortable with striking conversations with strangers, or preferred taking care of all aspects of a project by himself. As a tram commuter gently reminded me another day after we exchanged a few words, “You’ve got to ask more questions if you want to be a journalist.”
That led me to the very fundamental question, “What makes a journalist, after all?” On one hand, I’m curious about people, events and cultures—I like “breaking stories”. But on the other hand, I have a tiny bit of social awkwardness (which I might learn to overcome eventually). Would that make me a perfect journalist?
Nevertheless, in retrospect of journalism history, the media has changed drastically since the first newspaper in 1605, to the extend that Kevin Sutcliffe, VICE’s Head of News Programming in Europe, exclaimed in 2014, “[…] young people were not interested in news, and they were not going to watch anything longer than two minutes online, probably featuring a cat.”
To be a journalist can mean many different things, depending on how we look at the profession. But one thing for sure: I don’t want to get stuck in writing about the latest cars and fashion trends my whole life.