If journalists can't make a difference with their work, then they have no purpose. This is a thought that I think all writers have to wrestle with at some point, because—at least for me—a main draw to writing is the opportunity to influence change.
My journalism class recently was able to Skype with the brilliant Norwegian journalist Anders Fjellberg about his long-form feature story, The Wetsuit Man (Link). The story itself is fascinating, but it was even more incredible to learn the background of how it unfolded; the published work is only the tip of the iceberg.
Fjellberg is a great journalistic role model, and I look up to him obviously for his writing skills and successful career, but also his philosophy and life outlook (well, what little I could gather from an hour of watching him talk on a screen). He said, "A lot of successful journalism depends on luck, but a great journalist has to create the circumstances to be lucky." That means reaching out to that extra source, making a few more phone calls, always going the extra few inches. It may result in nothing nine times out of ten, but that one time could be an extraordinary discovery. I love that he said that, because I could always use reminding that stories and reporting are ultimately as good as the effort you put into them.
Fjellberg also explained why he structured the story the way he did. The mystery and foreboding he created with vivid descriptions and short scenes was a strong hook, but served another purpose as well. The Wetsuit Man is ultimately a story about refugees from the middle east, but that realization sort of sneaks up on readers, so it's hard to recognize it until the end of the story. As Fjellberg said, "it's a refugee story that doesn't look like one from the outside." The Wetsuit Man is different from the typical refugee story in that it has an element of mystery that draws readers in, and gradually incorporates the narrative of the refugees and their families, expertly illustrating the sadness, hope, and dire circumstances that drove the men to such a drastic acts. And to conclude, the story of the investigation, aftermath, and impact on their families.
I asked Fjellberg if he thought more stories like this one would make refugees more accepted, or if people read a story from the point of view of a refugee they would sympathize more, offer more help. He said he has to believe so, because otherwise his work would have no purpose. He said he has to stay optimistic and hopeful for the future, because otherwise nothing will change.