A Journalist Takes Stock of His Formative Years

AP Photo/Enric Marti

Learning on the job means making mistakes, but journalists get to make theirs in front of the reading public and their seasoned colleagues. At BuzzFeed, the site’s Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith looks back at his early years as a reporter, when he worked in Belarus as a stringer for the Wall Street Journal. In Belarus’ history, 2001 was a tumultuous time and the young Smith wasn’t experienced enough to see it all clearly. Revisiting this part of his professional life, he sees the hard lessons he learned, not about writing ledes or getting scoops, but about stories’ consequences, reporters’ moral responsibilities, and the naiveté that leads to false predictions about democracy.

There’s an axiom in reporting — crystallized by Janet Malcolm in The Journalist and the Murderer — that at the core of journalism is betrayal. I thought that’s what I’d done to Shydlovski. And I’ve thought a lot about the balance of responsibility to your sources and to your readers.

One night last summer, I found myself googling him yet again, when I decided to try some alternate spellings of his name. Up popped an interview with him on a Czech website — in which he mentioned, in passing, that he was lucky not to have been jailed for his beliefs.

I couldn’t quite believe it. The Google translation was so rough, the source so obscure, that I accused myself of fantasizing his words in order to expiate my guilt, and I put it out of my mind. But I always think about Minsk around 9/11, when most people are thinking about the moment when they first heard about the attack on the Twin Towers. I was reading Hansen’s book, and I began to think about writing this piece, and I thought I should at least ask Shydlovski himself what really happened.

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