Sunday, August 30, 2009

Understanding What We Are Trying to Achieve

As Kovach and Rosenstiel say in the beginning of chapter four, memory,perspective, and politics tend to blur people’s recollection of history. Journalism (true journalism at its best anyway) tries to counteract this basic human pitfall by recording the facts as best can be done – free of hidden agendas or geography or biases. This whole concept of “objectivity.”

While of course every journalist is human and therefore comes to the table with a certain set of beliefs, I think that the concept each journalist should strive for is that of what Dan Gillmore proposed – that it’s not so much about being a superhuman journalist who is “objective” but instead striving to incorporate thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, and transparency into their work.

When taught the “elements” of journalism in the classroom we have had concepts like newsworthiness, relevance, promixity, etc. repeatedly pounded into our brains, but there is more to it than just these taught seven. Elements such as honesty and transparency. Accuracy and showing both sides of an argument. To me that’s what journalism is, or at least, SHOULD be: Presenting the stone cold facts that let the reader make an informed decision for themselves. (While there is still room for creativity and we cannot let ourselves become so involved with “cool-looking” graphics and multimedia we let ourselves stray from the basic duty at hand – the story itself.

As Boorstin says, the news-making profession in America has attained a “new dignity as well as a menacing power.” I think that there goes unrecognized just how powerful a journalist really is – they get the press passes to go behind the scenes, they are the ones who sit face to face with world leaders, and their words are what can either irritate or inspire an uncountable number of readers that may or may not lead to change.

The ‘menacing power’ he speaks of is a call for truth and reliability- or as Elements of Journalism states, the “essence of the discipline of verification.” This sort of ability for the public to now be the “watchdog of the watchdog” is greater today than ever before with the Internet readily available at anybody’s fingertips with innumerable resources and means of checking a journalist’s work.

Boorstin best explains how tangled these roles can become when sources, even if inadvertently, are allowed to compose the story themselves. This danger is often with politicians trying to promote their image or agenda through wording or being more in control of an interview than the person giving it. How can the journalist possibly present an unbiased product when they themselves are, whether unknowingly or not, being used only as a medium to spread the subject’s message? “The citizen can hardly be expected to assess the reality when the participants themselves are so often unsure who is doing the deed and who is making the report of it. Who is the history and who is the historian,” said Boorstin.

The quest to dig deeper-not take anything at face value but to verify, verify, verify is the premise of what has led to the greatest journalistic work. Consider if reporters just said, “Oh, OK,” when originally told nothing was going on about events such as Watergate or Enron. In return for reporters doing their verifying, their stories must be equally verifiable to the public. This is the only way to build credibility and trust in a press that has seen more than its fair share of scandal and inaccuracy.

Schudson and Tifft talk about the new role of journalism after ethical lapses in reporting that have led to a public still somewhat critical and distrusting. They say that while the old role of arbiter of information has diminished, the need to alert citizens to the misleading, false, and propagandistic has never been greater. I agree with most of the class that there will be room for journalism in the future because despite how many bloggers are out there, the majority of these bloggers are getting the information that they either rant or rave about from professional journalism sources. The blogger is not at the news conference or sitting down with a member of the Senate. Journalists still have resources and rights that no blogger ever will.

While I think we would all, especially as journalism students, sit around a classroom and agree on the crucial elements of accuracy and impartiality and on and on, real-world application is what will be the test. Will we have the spine to stand up to a politician that is trying to spin our interview his or her own way? Will we not allow ourselves to give in to “lazy journalism” and actually go the extra mile to not only verify our stories but protect our professional credibility from faulty facts? It’s not that journalists who have fabricated stories don’t know better…I think that no matter how much we discuss the “elements” and the purpose of journalism, we will always agree on it and authors of the most inaccurate stories would probably agree with us as well. Knowing deep down what it is and should be is not the hard part. The application of those beliefs is.

Uh, why should I care?

I was sitting in the newsroom when the publisher came in to talk with me about a story he wanted covered. He received an e-mail from Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization headquartered in Colorado Springs. Apparently, the e-mail had circulated to various people in Ada, and many were concerned regarding the e-mail’s claims. The e-mail stated that a new bill called the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act would “not allow a pastor to preach the biblical truth regarding homosexuality.”

I decided to study the act in order to write a good story so citizens could be informed. I looked at the bill over and over and over again. I could not find any evidence to prove the e-mail’s claims. So I stated in the story specifically that the bill would not limit free speech, but simply add the term “sexual orientation” to current hate crimes statutes.

A primary reason why newspapers are struggling now is because of journalists’ resistance to explain how an issue will affect their audience. They simply present news, throw in a few quotes and call it a day. The primary purpose of journalism is not to merely provide information to citizens so they can be free and self-governing, but to interpret that information so the audience will feel some stake in the information being presented.

“Interpretative journalism” became prominent in the 1930s where columnists like Walter Lippmann vouched to help the public not only know the news, but understand the news. This model of journalism should be more prominent today, because we live in a very complicated society. Take the debate over healthcare as an example. There is not one journalist who has read any healthcare legislation and can explain what it means. Instead, they ignore the homework and simply quote the bill in a story, which is ridiculous! No wonder why the public is not interested in reading the news.

By explaining what an issue means to the public, journalists also provide cohesion within a community. A story may have an impact for one region and a totally different impact in another. An example would be the cap-and-trade bill in Congress. If a journalist from a Maine newspaper explains that jobs in the oil industry may be lost by making companies invest in renewable resources, the public may respond by saying, “Ok, so what?” But if that interpretation is expressed in a newspaper in Oklahoma, then it would get a very different response. The community would come together to try to stop a bill that would negatively affect Oklahoma’s economy.

The concern journalists have with this interpretative view has to do with objectivity. If journalists start to interpret the news, then their opinion may slip into the story. That is fine. There is no problem if your interpretation is your opinion if the interpretation is based on fact. When I did the hate crimes story, I did not let my opinion dictate my interpretation of the news. Personally, I am a conservative Christian thinker. But that does not mean I will side with Focus on the Family. I did not. I presented the facts, and then gave an interpretation corresponding with those facts.

The journalism industry is going through tough times financially, but a lot of it is journalists’ own fault. They lack the ability to accurately tell people why news matters; fearing their reputation of objectivity will be lost. If they start interpreting the news, then not only will they make money, but they would also provide good, quality journalism.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Getting Started: Challenge and Opportunity

As we embark on our journey this semester, my desire is to see this blog develop into an extension of class, which ideally means we’ll continue in this space a thoughtful exploration of what journalism is, what it is becoming, and what it can be. Given the pace of change in media, and the impact of change on journalism norms, routines and practices, we have plenty to discuss.

I think it’s worthwhile for students to consider what they expect to gain from their journalism educations. I hope the answer is more than the skills to get your first job. We had a pretty good discussion about this, and I found it reassuring that so many of you feel confident about your basic journalism skills and that your multimedia training has positioned you well for starting your careers. But it is also apparent to me that many of you have not thought very deeply about the purpose of journalism, its value to society and democracy, and the philosophical basis for democracy, freedom of expression and a free press. These are big issues, and – sadly, in my view – not discussed enough with students.

What is discussed is that the media are changing. That journalism has fallen on hard times. Jobs are hard to come by. Audiences are going to the Internet, but no one has figured out a way to make money online yet. The future is uncertain, even bleak.

I’m not a journalism fatalist. In every challenge is great opportunity. But to seize the opportunities, I believe, takes more than multimedia skills and an entrepreneurial spirit. Anyone can be a blogger, a news aggregator, a social networker. These activities require no special knowledge, no expertise, no special skills. You don’t need to attend university to do these things. They aren’t very promising career paths, although mainstream media – caught in a malaise of uncertainty – has joined nearly everyone else in doing them. Seems ironic, perhaps tragic, that the largest employers of journalists – traditional media news organizations – are embracing practices that devalue the expertise of their staffs, and are at the same time divesting themselves of enterprise, investigative and hard-hitting reporting. Makes one wonder whether journalism has been reduced to simply reformatting and repurposing information that is readily available in many places on the Internet.

What is the value in that?

We can do better. Much of our course work this semester is intended to explore how. The reward is a better awareness of our journalistic opportunities, and – I hope – a desire to pursue them.