Why journalism matters to me: I have a mind for math and a passion to find the narrative in stories

At 18 years old, I never expected to be writing news in the middle of a pandemic.

For the last six weeks, I’ve been a summer student journalist for Torstar, as part of an internship that started this year with the aim of introducing more diverse applicants into the newsroom.

In many ways, I’m an atypical applicant in an atypical time: I’m not in journalism school, and my reporting happens largely over the phone. The newsroom that I’m part of is hosted on Zoom, and I’ve only met a handful of my colleagues in person. Sometimes, calling a source in my childhood bedroom sends me into a self-aware spiral: How is this my job?

I got into journalism as a lonely math student who had just moved 600 kilometres away from her Ontario hometown. I traipsed around Montreal to cover stories for my student newspaper, drawn to the prospect of writing and understanding the city itself.

Reporting was the best kind of orientation. I walked alongside the protesters I interviewed at marches, and learned to navigate the Byzantine bureaucracy of student government by writing about it. Journalism became a balm for me, a kind of compass. When I was confused, I wanted to find–and write about–something that approximated truth. It felt like contributing to something physical, something published, something necessary.

It wasn’t easy work. Unlike the precise mathematical truths I studied in my classes, the chronology of real-world events was often fractured and confusing. Sometimes it was difficult to determine causality.

Narrative is what drives stories, but it’s also seductive: It’s easy enough to tell a good story and get the why wrong, even when the what is right. I learned how to fact-check the hard way, although I still make the occasional mistake. It’s a difficult job when every error made is public.

Yet that accountability to the truth is what makes journalism so important. Accurate reporting is more relevant than ever–how could I believe otherwise, at this time in history? I was born four months after 9/11. The global financial crisis happened when I was 6 years old. Like many of us, I can precisely pinpoint where I was the day I learned Donald Trump was elected–in my grade 10 math class, writing a unit test with a pit in my stomach. And of course, in my first year of university, the COVID-19 pandemic halted my life.

It’s journalism which has kept me informed through all this–because good reporting isn’t just business. The work journalists do is a service to society, as critical and as shared as our roads and highways. It’s also why it’s difficult to see the revenue model of something so necessary so deeply disrupted. Journalism is clearly not ‘dead’, whatever the latest pundit says–but in many ways it’s had to make substantive changes.

It feels especially ironic to know that my generation takes a share in the blame. We’re more informed than ever, but rather than reading physical papers, we share op-eds, infographics, Tweets, video clips. Some of us don’t read news sources at all; instead, we wait for stories to percolate through social media. Almost none of my friends subscribe to a newspaper. Our mode of consumption is digital, constant, and largely for free.

Yet how can the news survive if everyone wants to read it and nobody wants to pay for it? I’ve seen how hard people work in this profession. It especially breaks my heart to see less and less attention paid to local journalism. Without journalists reporting on your city, who will tell you about the issues with your children’s school board? Who will reveal to you the pollution in your water? Who will tell the story of your city or your family?

As I write this, my six weeks are wrapping up–but I’ll take my perspective on journalism with me. Soon enough, my Zoom newsroom will be replaced by a Zoom classroom, yet I’ll keep paying for the reporting that my colleagues do here. Life continues to happen, and it’s a gift to have been able to record a few weeks of it.

Tasmin Chu lives in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. She worked as an intern reporter during the summer of 2020 for the Waterloo Region Record, a daily newspaper and website in Kitchener, Ontario.