July 29, 2003

The Journalism Problem

I'm a journalist, which is a term that means absolutely nothing, no matter how much the mainstream media may try to make "journalism" sound like some sort of romantic and selfless endeavor to bring information to the news-hungry masses. Whatever.

When people ask what I do for a living, I don't tell them I'm a journalist. That just sounds too hokey, and it really doesn't tell them what the hell I really do for a living anyway. Rather, I tell them that I write for a few IBM magazines, while dabbling in weekly humor columns on the side.

But journalist? I try not to mention that I'm even remotely entwined with journalism. Why? Because journalism, no matter how deluded some in the journalism field may be who think otherwise, is not looked favorably upon by the vast majority of the American public.

People don't trust journalists, or, more specifically, big media. And it's no wonder. During the course of a single year, we've had Jayson Blair making up news, Maureen Dowd doctoring quotes, conflicting reports coming out of Iraq on a daily basis, and with Reuters news service flat-out making things up and attributing false bylines. It should be enough to make every newspaper across the nation arrange hurried meetings to deal with the corruption almost certainly taking place within their ranks. But, they don't, because they've learned that they can still rake in the cash even in the midst of reader apathy. They should be monumentally embarrased, but they're not. But I am.

The problems, of course, are many. First and foremost, each and every news organization adheres to political agendas, whether locally, nationally or internationally, and those political agendas taint everything they report on. They never told me this in any of my journalism classes. Rather, I was encouraged to strive for un-biased reporting, and I did my damndest to achieve just that. But, relatively unbiased stories, I quickly learned, became suddenly biased as soon as they hit the editing desk. Some words were taken out while other were slipped in, with the end result being a story that had a decidedly biased slant to it. I don't blame the editors for this. They were just doing their job, and their job was to make a story more compelling for readers, and one of the quickest ways to make a story more compelling is to take a side.

Therefore, unbiased news is a myth. It doesn't exist. Writers and editors, once they have the pen at the ready, can't resist interjecting their own views and opinions. And I don't believe this is a problem that can be fixed. Actually, I wonder sometimes if it even qualifies as a problem. American newspapers, going back to Colonial times, all exhibited bias of some sort. Hell, it could be argued, convinvingly, that if it weren't for newspaper bias, the American Revolution would never have come about.

But, bias is one thing. Ignoring facts to better fit your political agenda is quite another. Today's news organizations have gone beyond simple bias and into the realm of news fabrication and selecting only those tidbits of information that fit nicely into their political agendas. The current situation in Iraq should provide instructive fodder for journalism schools for the next 50 years. As readers, we can't for a second pretend to know what is actually going on in Iraq, because that country has become such a political hot potato practically every story coming out of there represents only a sliver of the truth. Reporters going into that country are either hell-bent on making it sound bad (Robert Fisk, hint hint) or hell bent on making it sound good (anybody from Fox news, hint hint). That's selective reporting that does a major disservice to the readership.

And then you have the Jayson Blairs in the industry who simply opt to make up news, selling it as fact as they sit at home playing their X-box. Reporters do this because many reporters are just flat-out lazy, and in today's instant communication world, it's easier than ever to be flat-out lazy so long as you have talent as a writer: the information is right at their fingertips, and all they have to do is pretty it up in a sort of creative writing exercise. It's not a new phenomenon by any means, but now reporters trying to pull that type of shit have to deal with a vigilant Internet community that will pounce on them viciously the moment someone catches them in the act.

I think one of the reasons big media has chosen to largely ignore blogs is because they recognize them as a journalism police force that they'd rather not acknowledge. Ignore them and they'll go away, the reasoning goes, only I don't think blogs will be going away any time soon, if ever. And I think it would behoove every journalist, new and established, to start up a blog, and blog daily. This blog has opened my eyes to the reality of the Internet and how it is the single most powerful tool at a reporter's disposal. The Internet, and blogs in particular, will rewrite journalism textbooks. The old way of doing journalism is withering right before my eyes.

Andrew Sullivan gets it.

Glenn Reynolds gets it.

And now I get it.

Posted by Ryan at July 29, 2003 12:25 PM
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