Pondering the perils of wearing a “mask” to work

By Jon Funabiki

Journalists spend much of their time poking into other people’s lives, but we turned the tables on a group of them the other day. We asked: Do you wear a mask to work?

The question came up at a weekend retreat that Renaissance Journalism hosted on July 12-14 for a group of Bay Area journalists. At a typical journalists’ conference, reporters trade tips about how they cracked big stories, but “Purpose & Passion: A Storytelling Retreat for Journalists” prodded the participants to explore the “why” and the “me” behind their work. What makes you tick?

Keith Woods, who facilitated the retreat with me, was the one who came up with the metaphor of masks. Keith, a longtime friend, is Vice President for Diversity in News and Operations at National Public Radio. He’s had decades of experience working with journalists on ethics, diversity and the “culture” of newsrooms. I was thrilled when he agreed to serve as our co-facilitator precisely because he is such a perceptive soul.

Keith noted a pattern in the arc of our three-day conversation. As trust among participants grew, the conversations became richer, more intimate and more revealing, sometimes yielding tears. Some participants were grieving the deaths of loved ones, others revealed health challenges, and still others talked about how matters of race and identity—often a flashpoint in the news—also affected their own personal and professional lives. Some, though not all, said that they were apprehensive about speaking with their newsroom colleagues about these and other matters. I can only speak in generalities, because we agreed that the discussions would remain private.

Keith suggested that the “revelations” were a sign that we had initially withheld parts of our identities when we first came together. He asked, “Do we wear masks to work?” If so, what does it mean if we can’t be our “authentic selves” with colleagues?

We learned that masks can be worn for tactical advantages. A couple of folks (myself included) confessed that we became reporters as a way to overcome chronic shyness. Becoming a reporter gave us the “badge” or “mask” (pick your metaphor) to do things we otherwise wouldn’t. “When I have my notebook and pen in hand, it’s like my security blanket,” said one of the participants. Another talked about adopting the bumbling and self-effacing manners of TV’s Lt. Columbo as a way to pry information from an uncooperative source.

One of the reporters in our group complained that the journalists of today have to spend an increasing amount of their time and energy on “branding” themselves. As newspapers and other traditional news outlets have declined in stature, individual journalists find that they have to carve out specialties and niches, which they market through Facebook, Twitter and speaking engagements. “I’m not entirely comfortable with it, but I embrace it because I’ve been told to,” he said.

There are also subtle, pronounced and philosophical reasons that the wearing of masks can take on a special significance. Take the concept of “truth.” Years ago, I remember speaking with a staffer at a San Francisco newspaper who had decided to come out of the closet as a gay man. Since the goal of journalism was to seek truth, he said he had realized that he couldn’t be a good journalist unless he could be truthful about his own life. Once coming out, he began to organize local journalists as part of the fledgling movement that ultimately led to the creation of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. This example lies close to the question of the “authentic self” raised by Keith. A number of journalists talked about how their lives and values were shaped by their personal identities, which in turn were influenced by their racial backgrounds, family histories, sexual orientation and so on. In subtle and overt ways, this can influence the stories and issues you choose to follow.

But what if you can’t express your “authentic self” in the newsroom? The ease with which staffers feel free to be themselves could offer an important barometer reading about the culture of the workplace. Do you feel like you have to tamp down a part of your identity for any reason, such as race, religion, gender, disability, language, etc? Are you afraid to reveal a health problem or feelings of trauma—think about the number of reporters and photographers returning from covering wars overseas—because you fear it might jeopardize your advancement? Do you think you can draw support from your colleagues if you are facing troubling times? If you’re withholding significant parts of your life, do you feel isolated and alienated among your colleagues?

“Masks” was the metaphor that Keith seized. As I play back the conversations in my mind, I thought of two others: “bullet-proof vest” and “straitjacket.” Which one are you wearing?

Read more about “Purpose & Passion: A Storytelling Retreat for Journalists” here.

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