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DAY BY DAY: Age, wisdom and a whole host of other myths wasting on the young

What a difference a year can make. When I turned 60 last April, it was hard on me. I usually don't mind birthdays but that one made me think about what it would be like to be young -- well at least younger. But here I am a year later now wishing I was 64, about to be 65, and done with a whole lot of things.

It's not that I don't like my life -- my job is interesting and never the same from week to week. My kids are grown and relatively independent, not living under our roof and far less judgmental of Kevin and me and the dreary decisions they think we make. Kevin and I both have started a sort of semi-regular exercise regimen which has brought us closer together -- it puts us both in the same foul temper and we vent by making fun of the people who appear to be enjoying the experience and their lean, hard bodies.

So was it really a such a good idea to spend Saturday with a bunch of college kids about to begin their lives as professional journalists? I was thinking no even as I drank my coffee that morning, talking myself out of going. But then, what the heck, maybe there would be somebody older than me there who actually remembered a time when writing for a newspaper wasn't considered a prehistoric pastime.

It turned out that I was the only dinosaur in the room and one of only three who actually had a paying job. The other professionals were from radio -- public radio, and we all agreed that getting rich wasn't why we did what we did. We didn't agree on a lot else.

I decided that while I was no Studs Terkel, I might as well embrace my elder status and give the experience some perspective. After all I have been a reporter for 23 years. When I started it was on a computer called a Tandy. We didn't have Internet access at work, no email, and a lap top was a sort of shelf you used to eat off of when you were sick in bed.

Now here I was, not only with a crowd of kids who could be my kids, (one of them was a favorite -- my son's college roommate) but a crowd of young journalists, young journalists who would do their job much differently that I do and who in all likelihood knew how to use all the features on their cell phones.

What saved the day was the topic of the workshop -- how to address race, ethnicity and gender as reporters and the woman who led it, Dr. Lillian Dunlap, an adjunct professor with the Poynter Institute. It doesn't matter how old you are or how you do your job or how diverse your community or campus is or isn't, these things matter and impact our lives.

Dunlap began by having us all define "what we stand for" as journalists. The answers were predictable -- fairness, accuracy, balance, quality, transparency, storytelling and understanding, among them. It's a good list. I added "truth" to it and that started some discussion.

One of the radio people said the trouble with truth is that it is changeable. I'm not sure what he meant by that but it made me uneasy. I'm not saying that everything I write is "gospel truth" but I do try to aim at that target. Then there is this whole notion of "truthiness," (thanks to the Colbert Report) which I have experienced.

To a lot of folks, truth in journalism these days isn't such a moving target as it is point of view. More and more, the truth of what a reporter writes or broadcasts depends on how that reporter is perceived by the audience. On the national level, there is Fox News and MSNBC with the regular networks mostly avoiding the issues by telling us way more than we need to know about "The Bachelor" and how Beyonce lost her baby weight.

Locally and more increasingly, the same kind of camps may be forming. I don't think my personal politics are very secret, nor those of my colleagues at the Star-Observer, but I don't think they influence how I do my job. I've been pretty much the same person for all of the 23 years I have been a reporter here. But I do know that there are now people out there who, regardless of what I write, see my byline and assume that I am biased, inaccurate, or just not telling the truth. I know the same thing happens to other reporters.

When I shared this with the group, only Dr. Dunlap seemed to get what I was saying but they will learn for themselves soon enough, just like they will learn that no matter where they live or work, race, ethnicity and gender will be issues that will impact and challenge all those things they say they stand for as journalists.

And I look forward to reading what they write, more likely listening to them online, and how they navigate the truth from a Lazy Boy in my golden years.

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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