First United Church of Journalism
I will always be an accidental journalist. I started writing for the paper one summer when I got bored, and advanced through the ranks by something closely approximating random happenstance.
Because I had no formal training, everything I learned about journalism, from writing ledes to ethics, came as a result of practical applications. Whether that involved close observations of the people I served under/with (which included two truly gifted journos as editors-in-chief) or simply reading the various newspapers delivered to our office, my educational process resembled nothing so much as a constant amalgamation of whatever I saw around me.
This inculcated in me a unique outlook on how I view the practice of journalism, strange not only in what I believe but why I believe in it. I've always prided myself on being fastidiously rational, explicitly rejecting anything that required relying entirely on faith, touted to be true despite any or flying in the face of actual evidence. Yet my approach to journalism is based almost entirely on anecdotal or ephemeral evidence –either what I've seen or what I simply feel to be true. This, as you can imagine, makes it somewhat difficult for me to argue my case. There are usually logical reasons behind what I think, but they can be considered rationalizations after the fact as equally as they can epistemological foundations.
In the past week, I've come across a number of articles/blog posts that either attempted to set out a path to save journalism, decried its imminent demise, or simply offered up thoughts on why the current system is flawed and will be replaced by something better. I offer no comment on most of these, nor do I have a panacea that will fix all problems, forever, and ensure the continued success of quality journalism. All I have are the concepts, precepts and foundations I learned from cherry-picking the best of what I saw and sought out in the newspaper (and yes, even broadcast) industry, at least as they relate to the current "crisis."
Too many words hurt readers' brains
A story is best (if simplistically) defined as the summary of something that happened. Whether it's an obituary (summarizing someone's life), a meeting story, or even a profile (usually touching on someone's background generally, then what they did to deserve the profile, specifically), the length of a given piece is entirely dependent on the subject.
"The Internet has damaged our ability to comprehend longer pieces!" they cry, "and online stories are usually much shorter!"
While it may be true that multitasking, the Internet and the proliferation of available outlets for our brains have somewhat shortened our attention spans, the link cannot be conclusively proven. Nor, for that matter, does it really matter. The Internet does have a tendency toward shorter stories – and the USA Today certainly proved the popularity of easily digestible news gobbits - but there are two flaws hidden in the surface of both of these news distribution models. For starters, shorter stories tend to focus on "hot" news, or news that's not really news at all. "Interests" might be a better name, or "Useless." Regardless, nothing of substance is traditionally delivered through these methods. A HuffPo blog post about Sarah Palin being invited on Leno's first week back may only need 77 words, but anything of even remote importance – even, say, a former vice president hospitalized but resting comfortably – needs at least a 250-word brief.
Which is actually a bit of a segue into the second flaw with short stories – for important matters, they don't tell the whole story. You can very easily give an update about an ongoing situation in an extremely concise manner. However, even when you're trying to talk about Jay Leno's guest list, you're still missing a crucial component: context. Yes, we know that Leno will "reassume the helm" of The Tonight Show, but the actual significance of the moment, as well as any longer-lasting impact, the history behind the move, or anything else regarding the situation is lost. The "story" is, if anything, a press release written as if solely geared toward the entertainment media, who already knows all of this.
Yes, the situation surrounding TTS is well-known, and it's probably not vitally important that every piece include every detail. But it does speak to the necessity of adding proper context to stories. It does absolutely no good to read yet another damn story about the healthcare bill stalling in the Senate if you don't know which healthcare bill it is, what's included, what the possible next steps are, or if any good will come of it at all. This something especially lacking on the Internet, where most revenues are almost driven almost solely on clicks and pageviews. Thus, the instant news is prioritized over lengthy pieces, but at the cost of giving the reader the proper context to place it in. That's why everyone knew what the poll results were in Massachusetts during the Scott Brown race, and why everyone seemed to forget the Democrats still had an 18-vote margin in the Senate.
One of the earliest things I learned is that objectivity is not everything – it's mostly everything. The appearance of objectivity is everything. True objectivity is something that can only be achieved by the writer. Editors, copyeditors, designers and the like can all check for obvious biases, but in the end objectivity is up to the writer. One thing that can be controlled, however, is how the public perceives your objectivity. A news-gathering organization's credibility is dependent entirely on its objectivity. Yes, there are some groups who rely on a different method, but note my careful use of the phrase "news-gathering" in the previous sentence. You can have entertainment value, or even perceived credibility, if you choose subjectivity, but you are not a news-gatherer. There are those who would use the term "fairy tale" to describe the practice of worrying about public perceptions, perhaps using the story of the boy who cried wolf as the role of the ethical purists in news-gathering – you'll remember, though, how eaten the boy in that story winds up. Just because there's no actual bias in one scenario does not preclude it from reappearing later on. Better safe than sorry.
This is one of the biggest ethical precepts I believe applies to journalism, and it is also the one I have the least solidly logical backing for. This is not to take the idea to illogical extremes, but care should be taken not to unnecessarily give the impression of bias – why submit to temptations when the whole thing can be avoided? The news has to objective, because news by its very nature must be objective. There is only one set of facts, and to try and argue otherwise is to misconstrue the meaning of the word "facts."
This one of the places where I diverge from solid principles and embark into a new realm. I do not believe that every side deserves equal consideration in a story, simply because every side of every argument is not equal. One of the biggest failures of modern journalism is the inability of writers to adjudicate competing claims. While in some cases this is a laudable notion (when making a judgment, moral or value call), it is absolute not subjective to make judgments in cases of fact. This, in fact, is where most people see the news as useless. Just because there are two sides willing to say something doesn't mean they actually have anything of value to say. But by soliciting quotes from both sides and publishing them without regard to veracity or even coherency, the media is able to report on the contest as a struggle of wills, or the horse race, rather than actually giving substantive information on the topic at hand.
Newsman as newsmaker
(My apologies to all of the amazing newswomen out there – I meant no offense, but “newsperson as newsmaker” just doesn’t have the same ring to it)
One of the biggest problems I see with the rise of social networking and electronic publishing is the idea of fame. Yes, the great reporters (be they print or broadcast) were famous – but they weren’t great because they were famous. They became famous because they were great. Our “fame-first” culture (and, to a lesser extent, the “everybody’s a winner” self-esteem movement) encouraged everyone to not only think they were great, but demand the same reassurance from everyone else. They would much rather promote themselves than the news they’re trying to cover, to let everyone else know just how amazing they are.
Regardless of field, nothing infuriates me more than the braggadocio. If your work is great, it will be found. Show off the best to your friends, to prospective employees, submit it for awards, go through the normal channels that greatness s recognized. Showing off your good finished pieces of art/story/whatever to your friends is fun, as it allows your group to revel in the creation of something amazing. Don't force it down their throats every time you do your job. Maybe it’s the tiny little old woman inside of me talking, but can’t you just be content to let things run their natural course? Must you be the center of every story?
It’s the relentless quest for external validation, the eternal seeking of adoration via populism that ultimately serves to dilute the quality of whatever you produce. Of course, I have no evidence for any of this – it's just the way things look from my perspective.