It's your chance to be a 'hero' journalist - then again, maybe not

In school, I always seemed to be in the class behind the "great" class. Nostalgic ruminations from misty-eyed teachers played a major role in my childhood.

It was no different when I arrived at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism six months ago. At orientation we heard of brave students who rushed to ground zero minutes after planes hit the Trade Towers. They stayed for hours, even days, finding stories and writing them up. They went by choice, because they were brave and because they were good journalists.

This lesson was driven home when we crammed into lecture halls to listen to thrilling stories from war reporters who had covered conflicts around the world. They had defied death, lived adventures, uncovered important stories, and seen exotic places.

During this time, I began to ask myself some serious questions: Do I have what it takes? Would I rush into danger, or would I duct-tape my window, open a crate of Oreos, and turn up the radio? As someone with a serious weakness for fashion magazines and daytime television, I lost sleep over this question. The journalism school was holding up a high standard for honesty, dedication, and courage - there was no room for excuses. We were never to miss a class; we were to interview scores of people for each story; we would be locked out of lectures if we were one second late; we would be expelled for misquoting; we would work harder than we ever had in our lives. It was intimidating. It was uncompromising. It was exhilarating.

Then, of course, reality entered the picture. Classes were missed, less-than-excellent articles were handed in, people remembered having worked harder. So I'm not sure why I was so surprised by a recent e-mail that the J-school dean sent out to the students. Sounding like an anxious parent (with a shrewd lawyer), he informed us that the threat of terrorism was "quite real." In a five-point letter, he outlined protocol for the students. Point one stated: "No student or member of the faculty is to approach the site of a possible terrorist act." It was a perfectly reasonable request - expressing concern and advising prudence. Still, something made me uneasy as I read the message - especially point 3: "Please do not attempt to become a journalism 'hero' in dangerous situations; we don't want you to become a journalism victim."

It contradicted everything the school had told us, but the quotes around the word "hero" were what bothered me most. The students had no ownership over the word, but the school did - it was the ideal they had fed us since the first day. I suddenly felt I'd been tricked by a salesman who didn't believe in the product he'd promoted with conviction. The letter seemed to say to me: "You didn't really buy that whole heroic journalism thing, did you?" I felt suckered.

I think the school was right to send the letter. It is easy to talk about strict standards and uncompromising ideals, but it is another thing to maintain them. And maybe they shouldn't be maintained. Maybe it's a good thing to tell a group of 20-somethings to be careful, and not run headlong toward a cloud of nerve gas.

As for me, I still don't know if I would have gone down to ground zero with my notebook or if I would have hidden under my covers.

But, anyway, that was last year's class.

Stacey Smith is a student at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and an intern at the Monitor's New York bureau.

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