A few weeks ago, I had 30 minutes to write an opinion article.

This doesn’t happen to me too often. I write all the time, but rarely on a deadline tighter than 24 hours. It was the Sunday after spring break, though, and the opinion I’d signed up for had slipped my mind entirely.

So when I checked my voicemail and heard one of our associate editors’ voices wondering patiently where my opinion was, the panic kicked in. Thankfully, I was quickly able to find the kind of topic that makes opinion writing easy – a topic that you’re solidly, certainly upset about.

This was the week of the disasters in Japan. I was even more news-saturated than usual, since I had a week off from everything but freelancing, and I’d been following some of the side stories. Namely, the stories about the disrespectful Tweets and comments made by 50 Cent, Gilbert Gottfried and others.

My frenzied writing took off from there, fueled by that sudden (and silly?) sense of importance that student journalists so often stumble upon. In the article’s last paragraph, I was able to articulate something I’ve been trying to put into words for quite a while.

Here’s the text:

It is horrifying to see a disaster unfold because you know you’re human and you really understand the fact that other people are human as well. You’re capable of grasping and embracing the fact that people in Japan hurt like you, cry like you, love like you. That basic horror at the suffering of other human beings is the real essence of compassion, of respect.

And if you have to fake that – if the humor comes first and you have to drum up the compassion later – it probably wasn’t there to begin with.

I turned in the article. I quickly got caught up again in the whirlwind of writing, deadlines and the second half of the semester. Then the day the article was published, I got a wonderful surprise in my email inbox.

It was from a girl on campus who’d read my article. She was half-Japanese, had relatives in Sendai, and she called my article “spot-on.” She hoped my article would increase awareness on campus.

I don’t know if it did. But I know that email changed something for me. Even though it praised me, it made me feel astonishingly humble.

In the internet age, it’s easy for a journalist of any caliber to feel insignificant. Half of my classmates probably have blogs that are just as well-read as our newspaper. But this article made me realize that I’m not writing into a vacuum – none of us are.

Whether you are a reporter for the newly-paywalled New York Times or a still-learning student journalist like me, you still have the power to change and influence and affect.

What we do matters.

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