I stepped on my own cord, lunged to catch the recorder, and almost smacked myself in the face with my mic.
I am the epitome of professionalism and grace, I lied to myself calmly. I am a radio journalist. Sweat trickled down my back. My headphones started to sag again, and I shoved them back on my head.
Loaded with about $500 worth of recording equipment, I was wandering around outside the Ursula detention center in McAllen, Texas. It was June. The heat was murderous. A border patrol agent sat in his marked car, engine and AC running, pretending not to notice my existence, but also blocking anyone from getting in.
Nick Valencia from CNN had already staked out the curb across the street, so at least I knew I was in the right place, but other than that? No idea. My boss had sent me to the US/Mexico border to do a story about immigration and family separation, but they weren’t letting anyone inside the processing center. I’d been a journalist for all of two weeks, and I was clueless.
I did, however, have an ace up my sleeve. I had one superpower that Nick Valencia didn’t. My secret? In a former life, I had been a debater.
I should warn you. This isn’t a “practical debate principles” sort of post. It won’t give you any new skills or help you move up the food chain in the debate universe. But it might encourage you to keep working at debate even when it’s slow going, because debate is applicable to all areas of life. Debate gives you a leg up on whatever you decide to tackle next, whether that’s a college essay, a conversation with your librarian, a job interview, a disagreement with a family member, or—journalism.
People told me for years that I should go into journalism. I wasn’t interested. I liked writing creative fiction, and, despite popular opinion, you won’t find that anywhere in a reporter’s job description. But out of the blue, I found myself driving across the country to intern with a news agency in Texas. And I discovered something: my background, unconventional as it was, had given me a solid foundation for this work. Why? As it turns out, there are a couple of traits that debate and journalism have in common.
The primary goal of debate, properly viewed, is the pursuit of truth. We don’t debate to bash people over the heads with our opinions. Instead, we want a thoughtful, balanced exploration of the facts on both sides. We ought to be testing the validity of claims, avoiding bias, and presenting each viewpoint accurately. That, likewise, is the goal of journalism.
So how does this apply to you? When you listen to a speaker, engage a debater, read the news, or have a conversation with a friend, you shouldn’t just pursue the validation of your own opinion. Instead, you should be genuinely pursuing the truth, whatever that might be.
Obviously, this is a crucial part of debate. You never want to head into a round without first understanding the concepts you’ll be discussing. It’s the same thing journalists do: before I go interview a source for a story, I need to find out as much as I possibly can about them, their work, and the issue I’m writing about. I need to be able to discover the right person to talk to. I need to research the facts of a story before I print them.
This skill is universally applicable. Maybe you need to find a recipe, a new insurance provider, a job opening, or the truth about essential oils. Being able to find and sort information from the internet (and other sources) is vital. But there’s another side to this, too: you need to be able to go beyond headlines. As a debater, would you ever just read one headline and accept that as truth? Nope. You’d keep digging to discover the whole story. So if you’re looking for a new insurance provider (which, trust me, you’ll need to do someday), you shouldn’t just accept the first one you see. You should look around and compare it to other options. If you’re reading a news article, you shouldn’t take it at face value and trust it implicitly. You should look around at what other sources are saying and get the context. Being able to research means you’re able to understand the world around you.
Guys, questions are important. In debate, rounds can be won or lost in cross examination. In journalism, asking questions is part of the job description. Of course, in journalism, your goal is to get a colorful quote, so you ask open-ended questions. In debate, a colorful quote is the last thing you want. You want a yes or no answer. But in both settings, you’re targeting certain information and trying to understand it—and that’s a skill you’ll use all your life, whether it’s asking for directions or asking your neighbor what they think happens when we die.
In McAllen, Texas, I wanted to find the truth in the midst of the media panic. I’d done my research and slogged through endless news reports and government statistics and frantic blog posts. Finally, as I stood outside the detention center, a vanload of women showed up. They started singing gospel songs and calling for President Trump to reunite immigrant families. So I started asking them questions. Turns out, they were a bunch of religious women from all over the country who’d gathered to protest family separation.
After they’d prayed and sung and lofted their signs a bit, I followed them to a Catholic Charities shelter for immigrant families. I watched a busload of families arrive, fresh from the detention center. I met Oscar and his son who’d just fled Honduras.
My buddy Nick from CNN had gone home hours before, so he didn’t catch any of that.
See? Being a debater gets results.
Have you seen debate impact your life in unexpected ways? Leave a comment to tell us about it!