I honestly didn’t think I would make it.
I got to school on Thursday morning, as a 22-year-old graduate student, and hid in the bathroom crying because I was so petrified that I would fail my first assignment.
You see, the 13 other Reporting the Nation/New York students and I had to make our way down to ground zero on Friday and find a story relating to the 14th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that affected not only America but also the rest of the world in an irreparable way.
And as of Thursday morning, I had no idea what I was going to do.
So I didn’t think I would make it. Every possible negative thought and emotion filled me and convinced me that I was going to fail out of grad school in less than a week. Grad school! That thing I’ve been dreaming of for the past year, that was supposed to send me on my way into a great journalistic career.
Yet by some miracle, I managed to drag myself out of bed yesterday morning, throw on some clothes, and make my way downtown. I met up with some of my classmates at a Burger King near ground zero and we anxiously stared at the crowds of tourists and NYPD officers filling the sidewalk in front of us. Of all the days to work on our first assignment, I thought…
Sept. 11, 2001 literally changed the face of the earth. It was one of the biggest events in modern history. And 9/11 is not an anniversary I’ve ever felt compelled to take lightly. I was worried that the people I approached would think I was some sort of callous, opportunistic journalist trying to capitalize on a tragedy in order to publish a story. I had this fear that I would get yelled at in public and accused of being heartless.
What I really wanted to accomplish yesterday was paint a truthful picture of 9/11 today. I wanted to explore how the events from 14 years ago are still affecting modern-day Americans. I wondered, do we still treat the anniversary with the same sense of respect and horror that we did in 2002, or have 14 years been enough to help us forget?
Despite all my misgivings, I eventually left that Burger King and started approaching people. Century 21 had set up a mural on Church Street, just a few blocks from the memorial, where passersby were encouraged to leave messages in honor of lost ones (seen to the right). It provided an excellent way to meet people and talk to them about what 9/11 means to them.
Although I didn’t have a story in mind when I started asking people to talk to me, I quickly found some similarities within the interviews. People expressed a sense of pride and patriotism toward their country as well as frustration with how the atmosphere on 9/11 has changed — a feeling that many have forgotten just what those numbers mean and have moved on with their lives to the point that the anniversary of the Twin Towers falling is just another day.
After a quick lunch with classmates, I went back to school and wrote my story. It shares the opinions of three annual visitors of the memorial on what 9/11 means and how the tragedy has made America stronger.
I don’t think I’ll ever say that yesterday was “fun.” As far as stories I’ve told, it’s not one that I enjoyed researching and writing. But, just as my sources believe 9/11 has made America stronger, I believe this experience made me a better writer and a more fearless reporter.
The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter what other people think of me or what motives they ascribe to my work. All that matters is that I approach every article as an opportunity to tell someone’s story and not an opportunity to advance my own career. I think if I ever reach the day that I care more about selling a story and attracting readers than I do helping someone find their voice, I’ll know that I’ve failed.