There is no greater dishonor when reflecting on the death of a young journalist than by referring to them as aspiring. It happened on Monday when news broke that Armando “Mando” Montaño, a 22-year-old recent graduate of Grinnell College and intern with the Associated Press in Mexico City, was found dead in an elevator shaft. Word of his death rocked social networks and prompted friends to write tributes to him that went viral in minutes.
It was the second time in six weeks for news like this: Marina Keegan, also 22, had just graduated from Yale when she was killed in a late-May car accident in Massachusetts. Within hours of her death, she too was heavily portrayed as an “aspiring” or “promising” writer. Yet, in both cases, they had more than proved themselves: Keegan, a longtime Yale Daily News columnist, had already landed a staff position with the New Yorker; and Montaño, who was an editor at Grinnell’s Scarlet & Black and had interned with the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times and the Seattle Times, voluntarily threw himself into one of the world’s most dangerous reporting spots. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that since 2006, at least 45 journalists have either disappeared or been killed in Mexico.
What’s aspiring about that? At 22, they both had careers that many of their peers envied. Much of the shock surrounding their deaths comes from the fact that they died so young and in too tragic a way. They’re remembered by friends for their wit and determination, and by their former colleagues for their promise. Richard Berke, an assistant managing editor at the New York Times, said Montaño’s “potential was truly limitless.” Weeks after Keegan’s death, author Jack Hitt recalled a recent meeting with her and ended his tribute with, “We lost a talent before we got to know her.”
The passion that these two had for an industry that’s adapting to new technologies, but which some say is dying in the process, is being met with an unintended disrespect that could turn students away from trying to get into journalism in the first place. Despite years of experience, aspiring is being continuously and wrongly substituted for young in articles that are meant to memorialize them. It’s dangerous but avoidable.
Last week, Ann Friedman, a recently laid-off GOOD magazine editor, wrote a column for Nieman Journalism Lab that was full of advice for journalism-school graduates attempting to navigate the first few years of their professional careers. In between tips for constructing a résumé that points out their more desirable qualities and a brief explanation for writing each article three different ways is Friedman’s clearest attempt at reaching her audience: “Never describe yourself as an ‘aspiring’ anything.”
It’s not right to harp on Montaño and Keegan’s ages when, instead, respect should be paid to their work and efforts to tell stories that others either couldn’t or wouldn’t. Each May, tens of thousands of graduates seek employment in the industries they spent years studying, and a significant portion are unable to find a job. Despite daily reports of journalism’s woes, here were two 22-year-olds who chose to try their luck anyway, and it paid off. They died too soon into their careers, but to label them aspiring now would be like not mentioning their work at all.