August 16, 2005

Journalism Stuff

I read this thought-provoking post tonight about journalism, and naturally it prompted me to think about my own j-school experience. Some thoughts.

Next was Dianne Lynch, dean of the School of Communications at Ithaca College, a journalist, and former executive director of the online News Association. She told us a startling story about an exceptional student who gave up a four-year scholarship worth over $200,000, including tuition, room and board, even travel money. The student came to the dean’s office to let Lynch know that she was quitting journalism and switching to sociology. “I decided that I just can’t be in such a terrible profession,” the student said, adding that it did not seem to her a field where a young person could “make a difference.”

There was a slight gasp in the room at that. This was because the phrase used, “make a difference,” though tedious and vague, was once the very thing that identified to journalists their own idealism. You didn’t do it for the money, and it wasn’t the wonderful working conditions, or a chance for advancement. For a certain generation (whose mortality was lurking about the panel, way under the laughs) journalism, at its best, was all about “making a difference.” Speaking truth to power, and all that implies.

Honestly, I can't remember any of my professors saying anything about "making a difference." Almost every one of them warned us that we shouldn't expect to make any money starting out, which was spot on true, but I don't think anyone of them mentioned "making a difference."

I wasn't drawn to journalism for some altruistic reason. I was drawn to journalism because I could write reasonably well and had a knack for interviewing others about mundane shit. Mostly, I was drawn to journalism because I was frantically trying to find an alternative to the English/Teaching degree I had decided wasn't for me and I needed something that transferred most of my existing credits. Hey, JOURNALISM! WOO HOO!

But, "making a difference." Something about that phrase bothers me. I guess it's because, in my mind, it's not a journalist's role to "make a difference." Because, if you go into journalism to "make a difference," you're automatically implying that something's not right to you and should be changed. In short, you bring your own agenda to the profession right from the start. So much for non-bias and objectivity.

It's also not about "speaking truth to power," because that's automatically saying that power does not speak the truth; which, obviously, power doesn't a fair amount of the time. But, "speaking truth to power" implies that power NEVER tells the truth. So, again, right from the gates, you're entering the profession with your own preconceptions and bias, which runs entirely counter to what journalism professes to be: namely, unbiased and objective.

Even more than that, as self-empowering and self-righteous as it is to say you're in a profession that "speaks truth to power," you're automatically establishing the "us versus them" battle lines. If you proclaim that you're going to speak truth to power, you're saying that you don't trust power. So, why the hell would power trust you? From there, you end up with stuff like forged memos being accepted from deranged sources or White House press credentials being granted to male escorts. How the hell is either case serving the public in a positive way?

I don't know. I guess "making a difference" is a pretty piss poor reason to go into journalism. Obviously, dork-knobs like Nick Coleman think it's their duty to "make a difference," and we've repeatedly seen here what kind of nonsense that produces. Granted, Coleman's a cynical moron with the writing skills of a flea, but still.

If practitioners of the craft want to position journalism as a field in which people can "make a difference" or "speak truth to power," they had better clue into the fact that journalism is not a non-biased and objective profession and admit it, up front, as such. We can't have it both ways.

Personally, I'd prefer it if they shaky "objectivity" facade was dropped altogether, but I'm biased like that.

At least I admit it.

Posted by Ryan at August 16, 2005 12:39 AM | TrackBack

I'm in agreement, sort of, about the pretense of objectivity -- I wish more people would read the news through the filter of "what is the author's/paper's/publisher's/network's agenda?" One nice thing about blogs is usually the authors are up-front about their biases.

But of course the down side of blogs (and a lot of other less grass-roots infotainment) tends to be a focus on the author's opinion to the exclusion of all else, absent any responsibility to check facts or try to see more than one side to a story. It's journalism as persuasion -- not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but also not very useful if you just want to know who, what, where and when.

I think journalism that tells the truth (inasmuch as there is such a thing) can and does make a difference. And of course the stories that are going to make the biggest difference are the stories that somebody doesn't want you to hear -- those in positions of power are more than happy to tell you the good news about what they're doing. The Seattle papers are full of barely-reworded prepackaged press releases about the latest Super Jumbo from Boeing or the fabulous new Vista OS from Microsoft -- no investigative reporting required, maybe a little rewording here and there and voila! instant story. ("Hooray! Now we can lay off some more reporters!") Obviously these stories contain little in the way of useful information.

It's the stories that require a little digging that tend to be interesting. A reporter need not have any particular political agenda to have an impact. Sometimes who, what, where, when (and maybe a little dash of why) are enough.

Posted by: flamingbanjo at August 16, 2005 12:35 PM

I agree with flamingbanjo. I despise the "he said she said" story where the reporter "objectively" gets one quote from one person on each side of the debate but never tells you what is actually the TRUTH. Of course there are cases when there is no objective truth, but sometimes (like when talking about the fiscal impacts of tax cuts, for example) there are good predictions for mostly nonbiased sources. It's frustrating when a reporter ignores readily available information for the easier job of insta-stories from PR types. And it's frustrating for me as the reader. It would make a difference, if only to me, if reporters would tell the truth as best they can. AND if they would choose the stories that are important to tell.

Posted by: klo at August 17, 2005 11:39 AM

so you then agree that journalism, as a profession, is not a place to "make a difference"?

i agree with klo: to me, it's not about how you cover a story (it certainly *should* be objective), but what stories you cover that make the difference.

Posted by: leblanc at August 17, 2005 04:45 PM
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