Journalism: "It's the good ones who need watching"
Who are journalists, and what do they do?
The old-fashioned idea that a journalist is a mere reporter (or recorder) of the news has been replaced in recent years by the idea of a journalist as a writer first and foremost, and secondarily as an interpreter of the news and an exposer of truth. But why should we trust journalists with such a huge task, and how are we to judge whether they are doing their job well?
One notion is that journalism is a competitive meritocracy and that the best will naturally rise to the top. Another is that it is a near-sacred calling, an elevated profession with a dedication to principle. Still another is that journalists are experts on the topics they write about, and should be trusted as such. Another is that they are liars extraordinaire, all of them (except, of course, the ones with whom we happen to agree).
So, what is it? A little bit of each? Or something else entirely?
I used to read the news with a great deal of naive trust. I suppose I subscribed primarily to the meritocracy theory, with the editors as gatekeepers with excellent judgment. I trusted the New York Times, for example, to choose writers who knew their stuff, and to make sure what was printed in the paper was the closest humans could come to the truth.
It was only post-9/11 that I began to read widely and compare and contrast, and to notice which journalists were writing what, and how reliable (or unreliable) their articles turned out to be over time in predicting, describing, or analyzing. This could not have been done without the Internet. But that's another story for another time, and will be part of the rest of my "A mind is a difficult thing to change" series. For now, I want to focus on questions about the training and background of journalists in general.
In my reading, I keep coming across a particular type of journalist--one who is an expert on nothing so much as writing itself (not all journalists fit this description, but a surprising number seem to).
Now, good writing and sharp thinking (and honesty) are certainly not mutually exclusive. But neither are they necessarily linked. A person can write in such a smooth way as to mask the fact that the thinking behind what is being said is illogical or misleading, or the facts are false. In fact, the smoother the writing, the more it can cover a multitude of sins.
That may have been what was going on with the fabled Stephen Glass, an extreme example of a lying journalist. As writer and Slate editor Jack Schafer, who was fooled by Glass, says:
One final clue should have alerted us--readers and editors--to Glass' deception: Life is not so good that it places reporters at the center of action as frequently as it did the young Glass. And he wrote so well. Anyone can doubt a bad writer. It's the good ones who need watching.
"And he wrote so well." Yes, indeed.
The Glass story, although unusual in its excesses, illustrates some general journalistic trends. For example, it's clear there are flaws in the fact-checking system, especially where "the good ones" are concerned. And, although their fact-checking system may be flawed, at least magazines have fact-checking. Newspapers don't, at least not formally; the pressure to get the copy out quickly is much too great.
Perhaps part of the problem is the practice of hiring promising journalists right out of college or journalism graduate school. Glass, for example, went straight to the top while still in his early twenties, after being editor of the University of Pennsylvania college newspaper. Why so far, so fast? Whatever happened to apprenticeships in the boonies, the time-honored way to hone a reporter's craft?
Again, it seems that "the good ones" are now rushed along with extraordinary speed, before they are seasoned by much experience at all (except college or grad school writing experience, which is a different sort of experience than life experience or even experience covering the beat on a local newspaper). According to writer Rick McGinnis, this is a growing and lamentable trend:
The only unusual thing about Stephen Glass' fall from grace, as far as I can see, is that he was caught. Fabrication, in small or large part, will always be common in a profession that, too often, values sensation over substance, and where older editors increasingly turn to younger writers to provide them with "buzz", or a window on trends, real or spurious. Freelance writers and junior editorial staff, like Glass, are the disposable shock troops of this regrettable but seemingly ineradicable side of the business.
Why is this trend so troubling? According to another journalist who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania:
"I've spent 20 years as a journalist," says Bissinger, "and I've spent those years in places that were not very sexy, like Norfolk, Virginia or St. Paul, Minnesota. But they taught me a hell of a lot about journalism. Regardless of how good or how bad a reporter or journalist Stephen was, how did he get to this level so quickly? When I was 24 or 25 years old, I was covering cops. And I'm glad that I did it, because Stephen never knew what it was like for someone to get in his face and say, 'You know what, that story was wrong, that story was inaccurate.' When you work at a relatively small newspaper, if you print one fact wrong, they are all over you, and they are all over your editor. It's an incredibly unpleasant experience, and for no other reason, you never want to go through it again."
So Glass--and other young journalists who aren't con artists as Glass was--miss out on a valuable training ground for their own profession, and can get by on the flashiness of their writing style.
I don't know how common this is in the journalism profession--my guess is that it's most common in the world of elite magazines, but that's only a guess.
Another question that affects the field in general is whether journalists should be trained in some substantive discipline such as economics and/or history. I have found that there's a growing clamor in journalism education to actually insist that young journalists develop such a body of knowledge and an expertise in something other than the craft of writing itself. To me, this seems obvious--and apparently some schools (such as Northwestern) have had this approach, at least on paper, for quite some time. But even a journalism school as prestigious as Columbia, from which many of our most successful young journalists emerge, is only now getting around to instituting such a program:
Columbia President Lee Bollinger is saying the school's traditional emphasis on teaching the craft of journalism needs to be balanced with courses full of intellectual and theoretical rigor. Without this, students will be trained as little more than scribes.....
Journalism training is a bit like playing the piano. A pianist who only hits the notes seldom "makes music" of the same caliber as a person who also knows composition, musicology, theory, and music history. In journalism, it's a given that a reporter can write about, report, and edit the news. But to approach the craft with an informed professional perspective – to "make journalism" – aspiring journalists need to study media ethics, law, history, global communications, and theory.
Especially "the good ones."