Journalism of the Unknown Unknowns

It's complicated ... and that's the point. Journalism doesn't have all the answers, and we shouldn't expect it to. We shouldn't expect our stories to solve things for us.

Journalists' primary role is not to answer the challenges that face our society: it's to bring light to those challenges, so that those with the proper tools to solve a given problem will know that the challenge exists. In a sense, we're brokers, we're middle-men, we're matchmakers between problems and solutions. But those problems and solutions still have to get to know one another, find the right match. We can't consummate their relationships, we can just help them find one another.

A couple weeks ago, I pitched a story idea to a magazine whose content I admire. From my perspective, the idea was right up this prospective client's alley. It fit their unique geographic focus and addressed a new angle to a controversy that's beginning to show up in more and more states. In the interest of still pitching this story elsewhere, I'm not going to get into much detail about it.

I'm writing because the outlet's rejection of my pitch centered on the editor's position that there were too many unknowns in the subject I wanted to discuss. I tried to stress that that's the noteworthy aspect of the story: this is an unknown situation. It also happens to be one that involves multiple state governments and economies sailing into uncharted waters. They're trying to develop a strategy for approaching the subject at hand (hint, it involves regulation of an increasingly popular energy resource extraction technique), but don't seem to be able to because they don't yet know how much this issue will impact them.

My potential editor didn't want the story because there are so many questions. Isn't that the point of journalism? Isn't part of our responsibility as journalists shining the light on inadequacies in official government? Are we only supposed to do so when we have tidy answers to present? Am I asking too many questions?

If there was another issue at play – the outlet doesn't like my approach, they don't trust my ability to complete the assignment, they can't afford to pay me, or anything else – they didn't let me know that was the case (and thus, lacking such knowledge or the ability to read minds, I'll go with what they said to me directly, rather than worry what they *might* be thinking, something I spend too much time doing all across my life).

Perhaps I suck as a journalist. It's quite possible, and that might be one reason I'm focusing more on my book than on reporting. Actually, this wasn't my first pitch rejected because there were too many uncertainties. Maybe that says something about my reporting. Maybe I'm not looking hard enough for a story. Maybe I'm giving up too soon before I find an answer. Maybe I don't belong. It's tough not to think such things when these sort of situations repeat themselves.

But I also can't help thinking that one responsibility of journalism is to help identify the “unknown unknowns.” Is it also our responsibility to then make those unknowns known? If it were, I'd suspect we'd get paid a lot more than we are (or I'd hope we are).

It's such a grind to pitch and hustle. Have I really been spending so many years doing all this work, racking my brains for all these answers, only to possibly have a magazine maybe think about publishing something of mine for a few hundred dollars? Is this really any way to survive?

The ground beneath my feet is so incredibly unstable.