Kat Aaron delivers a commencement address at the 2009 American University School of Communication Commencement ceremony. Aaron received her MA in Journalism
Graduation is supposed to be a moment of celebration. We have finally made it through all the exams, and the papers, and the frantic hunts for an open computer lab, and we’re done. But we are embarking on the next phase of our lives at a time when the future is profoundly uncertain. Many of us don’t have jobs lined up, and many places we wanted to work are laying people off or closing their doors.
It’s natural to be scared. But move through the fear. Because on the other side of the fear is tremendous possibility.
We are living through a turning point in both American history and in the history of media. We have seen the major economic institutions falter, we have seen some of the country’s most prestigious newspapers stop publishing. And we have seen the election of America’s first black president.
Being here in Washington, at American University, has prepared us well for the work we will have to do in this brave new world. Washington is a study in contrasts. We have perhaps the greatest concentration of power and wealth on earth. And we have families struggling mightily to make ends meet. In this moment of economic upheaval, we have to tell both of those stories: the story of the powerful and the story of the poor, the story of the decisions being made and the lives they will impact.
For most of this year, I have been reporting on the financial crisis. I’ve talked to Congressmen and regulators, legal services lawyers and fair lending advocates. I’ve read thousands of pages of Congressional testimony, and I have become way too familiar with the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act. And work like that is important. Understanding and explaining official Washington isn’t always fun or easy, but someone’s got to do it, and American trains us well for that vital role.
It’s easy to get lost in official Washington, though. We have to remember, and have been reminded by people like Professor Angie Chuang, to go out and find the stories of the parents and students, workers and organizers who make our cities run.
The day after the election, a colleague and I went to Anacostia looking for a story. The first people we saw were Aaron and Candis Robinson, Howard graduates raising two young girls. They were hopeful that unlike presidents past, Obama would address the entrenched problems of Southeast D.C., a neighborhood with high poverty and unemployment.
"I think he'll be for the people," Aaron Robinson told us. "The people that actually live in the city, work every day, don't pass the laws, but the regular ordinary people."
Our job as media makers, whether we’re reporters or filmmakers or in communications, is to be for the people. We have to communicate where we are, how we got here, and how things could be different in the future.
We will be telling these stories through mediums that didn’t exist twenty years ago or perhaps that don’t even exist yet. At AU, thanks to Professors like David Johnson, Lynne Perri, and Amy Eisman, we have learned to present our messages on the Internet, how to travel light and edit fast. We have learned to create for a world in which we can beam our stories to the palm of a person’s hand.
But we haven’t just learned technical skills. We have also learned something much more important, if less concrete. We have been taught how to seek out the stories that matter for the people.
It’s up to us to decide whose voices to put forward, whose solutions to highlight, whose lives capture important truths about this time. As much as we might hate to admit it, the news and entertainment media do shape our common agenda, as anyone who has taken a class with Professor John Watson will tell you. We might not be able to tell people what to think, but we certainly influence what they think about.
Which means we have to make choices about what matters, based on our ethics and our fundamental sense of right and wrong. And we have to stay true to those elusive concepts even as everything shifts around us.
It’s frightening to go forth into a world where the structures that once seemed permanent are gone. But it’s also tremendously liberating. We get to, and have to, reinvent our profession, with the guidance and support of people like Professor Charles Lewis.
And we get to, and have to, document these turbulent times. The work we do now will be the foundation of all the analysis and evaluation that comes later.
It’s up to us.
We have the greatest job on earth. We tell stories for a living. We are entrusted with distilling and reflecting other people’s dreams and hopes and fears. We walk the halls of Congress and the streets of Anacostia, and if we do our jobs right, we explain each to the other. There is no greater responsibility, and no greater privilege.
This is a scary time, and an exciting time. Most of all, it’s a time with great stories to tell.
And despite the butterflies in my stomach, and maybe in all of yours, I can say with confidence that we are absolutely ready to tell them.
Kat Aaron is a staff writer and fellow at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative reporting organization. She recently co-authored a major investigative project into the financial meltdown, which was featured in the Financial Times, Washington Post, and dozens of other media outlets. Before joining the Center, Kat Aaron was co-director of People’s Production House, a nonprofit journalism and media policy organization headquartered in New York City. She also worked as a producer for Wakeup Call, the morning news show at WBAI 99.5 FM in New York, and spent six years working on fair lending issues at the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, one of the nation's leading economic justice organizations.