Monday, March 27, 2006

The Fourth Estate

Recently I have vacillated between anger, contemptuous amusement and true concern after reading the spate of blog entries regarding the profession I Proudly claim as my own.

I stress proudly because regardless of the results of my introspection and close look at the state of journalism, I am PROUD to be a journalist. I am proud of the work I do, proud of myself for making the mid-life change I did, proud of my paper and secure in my integrity as a reporter. Perhaps so much "pride" may come across as snooty or egotistical to some of you. Believe me, those of you who know me know that egotistical is a word that is at the opposite end of the spectrum from my reality, and snooty…..well, one would have to have a sense of detachment to be snooty, and that is something I have never managed to cultivate.

That being said, I am nonetheless not only proud of my career, but a staunch defender of the profession and what I see as its invaluable place in society. That is not to say there are not the "bad apples" as far as practitioners nor problems within the industry overall. It is sometimes easy to put on those blinders in knee-jerk defense of what one has chosen as their path in life. And some comments I have read on here bring about that instinctive reaction more than others do. I find that the comments usually fall into one of three broad categories.

For the most part, upon first reading, most mentions of "journalism" combined with criticism fall into one of the following.

One: Blind mob-mentality parroting of "blame the worlds sins on the journalist…the modern equivalent of "shoot the messenger" and usually spouted by those who do not even bother to pursue or peruse any media deeper than People magazine and Late Night with Conan O’Brien.

Two: people who see the humor in some of the more ridiculous of media’s snafus and play off that in a humorous vein, without specific true insult or intent against those of us who call the newsroom home.

Three: those who are seriously concerned, who have put thought into the shortcomings of the profession. Who approach the concerns with sincerity not spewed insults – truly seeking answers improvements and input. It is people like the posters of this last category...people like Carly at Ellipsis, that encourage the true critique of an institution, industry or status-quo which brings about change instead of mere carping.

The topic is so extensive that it is hard to know where to start. In total repudiation of my training and my editor’s red pen, I am shunning any journalistic format or rules for this post and will just ramble…..again those who know me know how in-character that can be for me and hopefully most of my readers will bear with me.

With purely selfish motivation, I will start with Carly’s opening quote in her entry on journalism. "We can’t decide if the world is growing worse, or if the reporters are just working harder." The answer to that question is a simple one-word statement: BOTH.

Human nature has always given "reporters" – be they a Neanderthal named Uhg who travels from cave to cave grunting out syllables of distress or the pouffed and powdered news anchorette on the local news, plenty to talk about. But the advances in technology, knowledge and the simple refinement of the worse tendencies of man (and woman) have made the atrocities so much more immediate it seems. But at the same time, those same reporters are struggling……..fighting a decline of an industry we give our lifeblood to and for… and sometimes that lifeblood is reality, not symbolic. Paying for our dedication to the words we write and the pictures we take is not unknown, or even specifically rare. Statistics show that "kidnappers in Iraq, political assassins in Beirut, and hit men in the Philippines made murder the leading cause of work-related deaths among journalists worldwide in 2005, a new analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows. Forty-seven journalists were killed in 2005, more than three-quarters of whom were murdered to silence their criticism or punish them for their work, CPJ's annual survey found. That compares with 57 deaths in 2004, just under two-thirds of which were murders. " (Statistics taken from a CPJ report…click here to read the full report)

I myself work seven days a week, often ten hours a day. That is not a complaint. I LOVE my job with a passion. But that does not mute the tick tick tick of the clock, nor am I by any means in a minority.

Carly’s next question - whether the media would rather report news that keeps the public fired up instead of reporting news that has a positive aspect to it – is a short sentence introduction to an extensive subject. What is news? What is a journalist? What should newspapers, radio, television cover?

"News" serves a number of functions. By definition, the function of the news is to inform people about social, political, cultural, ethical and economic issues so that they can vote and otherwise express themselves as responsible citizens. News also serves as a historical record of society, documenting humankind’s whos, whats, whys, whens and hows.

"A free and independent press is essential to human liberty. No people can remain sovereign without a vigorous press that reports the news, examines critical issues and encourages a robust exchange of ideas." Such was the definition of Journalism decided on by a group of worldwide journalists gathered together to address the issue of journalism as a public trust.

Today, however, it no longer seems to make a difference who is right or what is true…it only matters who is loudest. Two key components of any definition of journalism are that journalism involves "verifiable fact" "relevant to the serious issues of society." Daily, however, we as reporters are buried by events that overshadow the larger issues. Photo opportunities, sound bites, hot-button issues and staged political "news" provide the opportunity and stumbling block to both intentionally and unintentionally neglect the hard news.

"Pressed by deadlines, hemmed by the size of the news hole and isolated from research facilities, daily journalists are frequently forced to ignore the stories behind the news. In doing so, journalists can be seen to fail to make politicians accountable," said Alan Knight. And as a working journalist, that sentence rings with the unmistakable tenor of truth.

That brings us to the issue of what hard news vs. soft news and what is the place of each in the media. Before stepping into that morass, a quick mention of the subject "who is a journalist."

There seems to be much hullabaloo lately about whether blogs count as news. I see this in a number of ways. As a reporter, with a honest-to-goodness degree (and the associated student loan debt) hanging on my wall, and the 4 years of learning, researching, studying and improving, I balk at the idea that some Joe Blow can plop down at his computer and spew out some words and be considered a journalist with as much credibility as I. The pride thing……but only in part. It goes back to that verifiable fact. I have a responsibility, consequences and repercussions if I betray the ethics and standards my paper…..and I…have determined essential.

Now many people will point out the scandals that have rocked the journalism field lately. To that, I say Yes…..journalism has its shameful practitioners, its scoundrels, its embarrassments, and its bad apples. But so does every other profession on the face of the earth. And those scandals, no matter how widely touted…change the fact that the vast majority of journalists are guided by the strongest sense of duty and responsibility to the underlying and vital purpose of journalism.

Just as no doctor would say anyone could do a cardiac bypass without the training and knowledge to be officially a "doctor"……or a mechanic would recommend a neophyte attempting a carburetor rebuild (yeah yeah, I know, nobody has carbs anymore, I’m dating myself) neither is the profession of journalism just a bunch of scribblers who had nothing better to do. Contrary to popular belief, a fedora with a white label suck in the side that reads "press" does not a journalist make.

It is the journalism that defines the journalist, not vice versa. Also, blog writers, even the ones who give their writing the veracity, seriousness and consideration of true journalism, owe much of their inspiration to the raw material served up each day by conventional news organizations. That being said, the world of blogging is not an ephemeral, transitory phenomenon. It would behoove the industry to not only accept and acknowledge it, but to turn to it for clues and keys to what is required from the media.

Indeed in his excellent article in WIRED Kevin Kelly writes:
In fewer than 4,000 days, we have encoded half a trillion versions of our collective story and put them in front of 1 billion people, or one-sixth of the world's population. That remarkable achievement was not in anyone's 10-year plan. "No Web phenomenon," he writes, " is more confounding than blogging. Everything media experts knew about audiences - and they knew a lot - confirmed the focus group belief that audiences would never get off their butts and start making their own entertainment. Everyone knew writing and reading were dead; music was too much trouble to make when you could sit back and listen; video production was simply out of reach of amateurs. Blogs and other participant media would never happen, or if they happened they would not draw an audience, or if they drew an audience they would not matter. What a shock, then, to witness the near-instantaneous rise of 50 million blogs, with a new one appearing every two seconds."

Why, I ask, would we as journalists, journalism professors and members of the news media in general turn our back on this public power? This bigger brain, that Kelly persuasively argues, will, by the year 2015, help us do so much of our thinking that if users are cut from it, it will feel as if they have had lobotomies.

So what is news? Is it what we as journalists determine it is? Is it what the conglomerates that have bought the majority of media outlets say it is? Is it what the shopper at the supermarket says it is? Is "soft news" news?
"Hard news" refers to coverage of breaking events involving top leaders, major issues, or significant disruptions in the routines of daily life, such as an earthquake or airline disaster. Hard news has traditionally been considered essential for an informed and participatory citizenry. "Soft news," on the other hand, is news unrelated to public affairs or policy, and is typically more sensational, more personality or celebrity oriented, less time-bound (meaning that the traditional journalistic norm of "timeliness" does not apply), and more incident-based than hard news (Patterson).

It is clear to anyone who opens their eyes that soft news has taken over not only television but also print media. News stories lacking public policy content jumped from less than 35% of all stories in 1980 to roughly 50% of stories appearing today. Stories with a moderate to high level of sensationalism rose from about 25% of news stories in the early 1980s to a current tally of 40%.
The leading example of newspaper soft news journalism is the USA Today – the print equivalent of Hard Copy.

Common sentiment is that immediacy is more important than either accuracy or applicability, and humor is more important than that and profit overrides all.

Ok, so money seems to be determining news content. Ah-hah..someone to point the finger at! How dare the journalism industry place monetary gain over the sacred responsibility of their charter?

But then comes the chicken-and-egg blame game. What about the responsibility of the news consumers? Is the industry of journalism to blame for supplying what is demanded? Newspaper circulation dropped 1.9 percent in the last year. Young readers are scarce. Just 23 percent of people under 30 said they had read a newspaper the day before they were interviewed according to the Pew survey. The same survey says young people aren't very interested in news from any source, electronic or print. The time spent watching or reading the news by adults under 30 has dropped by about 16 percent in the past decade.

Newsroom budgets are tight, and the competition remains unrelenting. Even Nightline, one of the most respected news sources through the years, has lost almost 40 percent of its audience over the past decade. Competence and prestige are no longer guarantees of survival on network TV . Sustaining profit growth often requires reducing the resources for news gathering, thereby diminishing the role of the news media as a public trust. Business priorities are encouraging the blending of news and entertainment as a strategy to build audiences and ratings.

As one pundit put it, is it possible for journalism to both do well, and do good at the same time? What justification is their for demanding that the business ventures that media outlets are should neglect profits, that journalists should forfeit the meager wages they do make, that editors and publishers and media moguls should be the one sector of private industry that should disregard the business of making money to satisfy their obligations? Should it not be, at minimum, a mutual burden of both the industry to maintain a level of quality, and for the public to support that quality with the dollars they are now dropping on The National Enquirer, American Idol and WWE Wrestling?
Is there any doubt that if views and readers used their pennies, dimes and dollars to express a preference for a return to the hard news as opposed to a minute-by-minute documentation of a slow-moving white Bronco and the latest runaway bride- that the journalism industry would gladly follow?

I do not know a single fellow journalist that does not admit and acknowledge there are concerns within the profession. "We" sometimes get facts wrong and have trouble admitting it. "We" sometimes includes incompetent or ignorant or even downright dishonest reporters. "We" tend to concentrate on the bad news and gloss over the good. "We" lack diversity at times and all fight the natural inclination to allow editorial bias to sneak into news stories…and are not always successful in that fight. And sometimes we refuse to admit…..there just is no story. However, I’m betting 95% of the journalists working today believe they are fulfilling the true calling of their profession, providing fair and independent news in the public interest.

In answer to Carly’s question "Why is he not being challenged by members of the media about his assertion that it is media to blame for his low approval ratings?" I can only answer for myself and assume I am not unique. Personally, I am busy writing about the latest zoning ruling of the county council, the election of a new Sheriff, the loss of the state championship by the local high school’s football team, the effects of new immigration policies on local workers, the size of Cousin Jimmy’s bass that got away and the killer chili that won the cook-off. I don’t have time to worry about what the President has accused us of. If I care to worry about accusations, I’m sure I could lift my hand at the local Starbucks, ask for input, and get all the accusations I could possibly want. Then again, I could also just log on and skip through my bloglines and skip the Starbucks altogether with the same results.


Blogger Carly said...

Hey Jessica

Thank you for this post, and answers to some of the questions I posed. I guess when I ask the question about why the media isn't pressing for answers from Bush, regarding his assertion that it is the media's fault, I am not referring to a journalist such as yourself, I am talking about the White House Press Corps. It has only been lately that they have begun to hold their ground and press for an answer to their tough questions.

I think in the case of a story such as the "Runaway Bride" Jennifer Wilbanks, I still maintain that should have never been a national story. Maybe I am showing my age here, but in the 60's, 70's, and even the 80's gossip wasn't news. Of course there was commentary on who were from a cultural standpoint, but Jennifer Wilbanks wasn't the first bride to get cold feet. Heck, remember the Julia Roberts movie, "Runaway Bride," how many of the people casting stones at Jennifer Wilbanks for being irresponisble, went to that movie to embrace the romance? I don't blame the media for the ills of the world. Things need to be taken on an indiviual basis...nothing is universal when it comes to an opinion. Sometimes it is all just a viscous least that's my opinion. Sigh. Fabulous entry here!

11:52 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

Carly: thanks! And I am in complete agreement with you on the runaway bride issue. Believe me when I say that there are times when I sit here shaking my head in wonder at the antics of my peers. What in the name of the Gods were they thinking? But then again, as much critcism that was dumped ont he media for this and similar errors in judgement, you really have to wonder why so many of the public were glued to the television every time her name was mentioned.

12:25 AM  
Blogger Carly said...

Things in America changed the around the time Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered. It was trending shortly before that, but the circus surrounding that particular case, was horiffic,lurid, and at the same time intriguing because we all wondered what kind of person could do something so cruel. Did we all have a person like that in us? As the facts came out, we recieved our information thru the media. It was coverd in all kinds of venues, by all different kinds of people. As a result, there was a lot of information to be found and a lot of opinion to go with it. Sigh. The lines blurred.

Now we are ten years later still trying to define ourselves, as the political lines have blurred. The media is the messenger, and I don't believe in ever shooting the messenger...where would that leave us? Uninformed and ignorant mostly. However, I think we, including the media, need to take stock, and hopefully we can get things going back the opposite way toward integrity and away from the sensational. IMO. :)Thank you for this opportunity for an intelligent dialog darlin...I find it invigorating! :)

5:09 PM  
Blogger Celeste said...

Ok girlie...I've just read through your last three entries. How did I not get them? HMMM??? What an excellent entry this last one is. So you know, there are those of out here that haven't jumped the wagon...we/I can see the hype/sensationalism/budget behind most of the crap put out here for us consumers to suck in like the drama seekers most of us are. The truth always speaks eventually hon. ;) You're just amazing doll...amazing. ;) C.

8:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! What a post! And obviously from the heart.

We frequently turn to each other and say "slow news day," when our local T.V. station has the time to play fluff rather than covering what's going on at City Hall. We've seen the rise of the "happy" format on television news, and you've pointed out the trend is there in print media, too. As a nation, we are going to "happy" ourselves out of our connection to the community if we don't support our newpapers. I shudder every time another one bites the dust.

As for bloggers, we are
"journal-ists" in the most basic of definitions. We are simply using an electronic medium rather than the original journal to collect our thoughts. The key distinction between a blogger and your type of journalist is that a blogger deals in personal opinion, where a journalist must report without coloring the story with personal opinion.

There's one thing about TV journalists that burns me. The trend is to go to someone who has just suffered a disaster, learned that they have lost a child, or a loved one has been shot in a drive-by shooting, and stick a microphone in their face and ask what they feel. That's not news, it's invasion of privacy. It's sensationalism, and should have no place in news gathering.

Thanks for a great post. It will be great food for thought.


12:29 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home