Ever since I was a little kid, I heard people say: “Hey, what’s the big idea?” In most cases, this phrase was a synonym for “What do you think you’re doing?” These were not real questions. They were challenges to perceived misbehavior: a kid sneaking around; someone going through your stuff.
What if we asked that question and expected an answer. And what if we added a context: “Hey, what’s the big idea – about journalism?”
Every creative act I can think of is attached to some big idea that is rarely expressed. But if you KNOW that big idea, it can help you learn the values and the elements of a particular craft.
- The big idea about music is that something abstract — a sound — can evoke an emotion in the listener.
- The big idea about dance is that the human body is an instrument, and the movement of that body can carry a particular meaning.
- The big idea about soccer is that time and space are crucial to performance: The more space you have, the more time you have to execute your move.
- The big idea about the baseball card is that story, image and data can be organized and expressed efficiently to grow your knowledge and love of the game.
- The big idea about mapping is that every map reorients the user, placing that person in a location that offers freedom of movement.
- For me, of course, the big idea of story is that the purpose of story is not information, but vicarious experience. A story lifts you up and puts you there.
The cool thing is that these big ideas are all expressed through our senses in the real world: with a sound, a leap, a kick, a card, a line, a text.
So what is the big idea about journalism? I thought I knew until I started to play around with these questions. Here are some possible answers, but get ready, because I am going to ask for your own formulations.
The big idea about journalism is:
- That people in a democracy need impartial reports in order to self-govern.
- That our Constitution gives us freedom to express ourselves in various ways.
- That the responsibilities of citizenship include becoming well-informed.
- That shining a light on the workings of government will make it more transparent and responsible to the people.
- That people in a world drowning with information need guidance in figuring out what is interesting and/or important.
OK, that’s all I’ve got.
The big idea about poetry is that language can be compressed so that meaning can be expanded. The big idea about musical theater is that audiences will suspend disbelief and accept singing and dancing as normal expressions of plot and character development.
So what’s the big idea about journalism?