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ivoh | January 17, 2018

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The value of duty

Michelle McLellan

Michelle McLellan

By Michelle McLellan


“Begin at once to do your duty and immediately you will know what is inside you.” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Ugh. How I’ve shuddered at that word.

Duty has stalked me relentlessly since I was a child. It made me behave. It punished me with guilt when I tried to ignore it. It brought me chilling nightmares about imagined promises I could not fulfill.

In life, I fashion myself as a free spirit. But when duty calls, I obey.

In my young eyes, my dour Scottish paternal grandmother, Jessie McLellan, personified duty. Duty to a family that demanded that she put them before her aspirations. Duty to an unforgiving god. Duty to a marriage that took her from her beloved Scotland to the United States. Duty. Or else.

My father, David McLellan, upped the ante. His was a duty to social causes such as the civil rights movement. His was a duty to scholarship and teaching that spelled endless hours in his office, reading, commenting, grading. His was a duty to an academic career so stressful that he would sometimes cry. Duty. And pain.

Duty seemed inextricably linked to fear and punishment.

My parents engaged with great passion in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. They opened our house in California to movement leaders visiting the state to tell their stories and raise money. I saw African-American leaders as saints, in their suffering for the good of mankind. But suffer they did, all the more so because they did their duty and fought back against pervasive racism.

As a new, untenured professor in the ‘50s, my father also spoke out against the tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He fully expected to lose his job in the uproar that followed. We were afraid. But he said he had to do his duty.

Watching all this as a young child, I saw duty as a cruel master. I toed the line. I did my homework, got good grades and tried to stay out of the way.

I stumbled into journalism in college in the early 1970s. Duty was part of what turned out to be a calling. Back then I was idealistic. I wanted to perform public service.

In the era of Vietnam War spin and the Watergate scandal, government service did not hold much appeal. Instead, I saw news and information as a way to help citizens govern themselves. I idealized the other side of Watergate and Vietnam: Truth. Justice. Journalism saves the day!

As an unschooled journalist, my first duty was to the fundamentals: Get it right. Get it fast. Make it clear. Be fair. Be objective.

As I matured, I became increasingly disenchanted with the way we in the newsroom framed stories. It was all about the process, I thought. It was all about the usual suspects, the official types who were easy to reach. News, or newsiness, too oen trumped information and understanding. As we strived to be objective, we became more detached from the people and communities we sought to serve.

If the top duty of the journalist was to community and to readers, then mine was a duty to push for change.

As an ombudsman and then special projects editor, I defined my role as that of a teacher. I helped bring new voices into our newspaper pages and persuaded reporters and editors to adopt new ways of learning about and connecting with communities that were too often overlooked or pigeon-holed by mainstream journalism.

I pointed out how our practices and processes actually undermined our principles. For example, it became clear that stories about crime – particularly in Portland’s African American neighborhoods – often appeared on the local section front because they were “newsy” while stories that were more reflective of that community ran inside because they didn’t have a hard peg.

One term, I taught a high school civics class once a week and led the students in doing a content analysis of how The Oregonian portrayed people their age. The conclusion? If a teenager wasn’t a jock or a criminal, she’d have a hard time making the front page.

I helped reporters develop beats on race and youth that bypassed official and institutional sources to start with people of color and address young people where they lived. I wrote a book about credibility that pushed hard on the notion that connections with the public – not rules of ethics – would restore trust.

None of my efforts was particularly spectacular or daring. But in many quarters of the newsroom, I faced skepticism and criticism. Some were receptive. Attitudes and practices did change. But it often was lonely work.

The moral of the story?

Duty made me brave. It made me challenge the status quo and open myself to new ideas and approaches. (This, in turn, enabled me to remake my career from that of a traditional print journalist to a blogger and coach to people who are trying to understand and foster an exciting new news landscape.)

As I’ve gotten to know duty better, I’ve learned this: Duty is not forced from the outside. Duty comes from within. Duty isn’t about others. It’s about me. Duty isn’t about fear. It’s about choice.

Duty is a choice to stretch, to struggle, to learn, to commit, to grow. Duty reflects my own desire to be brave and generous. No longer a cruel master, duty is a challenging supportive friend who reminds me who I am.

Michele McLellan’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.