Friday, August 12, 2005

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."

27 Comments:

At 12:24 PM, August 12, 2005, Blogger Solomon2 said...

There also has to be a demand from the editors for journalists who actually know something other than the art of writing. There are good reasons and bad reasons why this doesn't happen. One good reason is because those who write about subjects they know may not be proficient at communicating this to a lay readership. Two bad reasons: (1) knowledgable folk demand more money than those who can spell and write, and (2)such "knowing" reporters are a threat to the jobs of reporters already working the same beat.

 
At 12:30 PM, August 12, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not just in journalism that the Fast-track is a risk. Look at the batch of young CEO's that crashed and burned (in this case early to mid 40's in age). Now the trend is older CEO's to take advantage of experience. The key is not age, but if valuable time in the trenches was bypassed.

 
At 12:32 PM, August 12, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

Bloggers as watch-dogs sure is a positive development, that's for sure.

 
At 12:47 PM, August 12, 2005, Anonymous meander said...

Many years ago I had a family member involved in a very dramatic occurrance. It was front page fodder for the big Philadelphia papers for a couple of weeks. Reporters called our house to get background info and facts on the family member from my mother. It fascinated us to read the subsequent stories and see how much incorrect info they contained that related directly to what my mom was interviewed about. The "reporting" was well written and gripping...just not totally accurate. For some reason, I never applied that personal experience to national and world news reporting until the age of the internet and information laden blogs.

 
At 3:17 PM, August 12, 2005, Blogger David said...

"need to study media ethics, law, history, global communications, and theory"...what exactly does "theory" mean when disconnected from any specific discipline? And what do they mean by "global communications"? Somehow, I suspect they're not talking about Dense Wave Division Multiplexing and IP Voice technologiesd...

 
At 4:19 PM, August 12, 2005, Anonymous john moulder said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 5:25 PM, August 12, 2005, Blogger Paul said...

This is new? What about the Spanish American War, Hearst and Pulitzer? Ever see the old movie with Cary Grant, The Frontpage? The newspapers have been full of bunkum forever. And once you've noticed the inaccuracy in reports about subjects you know, why did you assume that other reports were accurate? Should have been a tip-off.

 
At 7:19 PM, August 12, 2005, Blogger ocraner@gmail.com said...

journalists as "neutral" (a concept!) has certainly been re-re-re-exposed post-9/11, post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq. I say as a 27-yr old ex-left pro-regime change Brit, outraged, shocked and insulted by the self-proclaimed "impartial" BBC, who failed to even mention the great success of the Afghanistan election. I spat venom that week, and it scarred my lips. I was not happy.

Nevermind past heroes, such as Seymour Hersh. This isn't even "going to the other side"; they've lost judgement here. So many have, and it's depressing. It's bad and it's flawed and it's fucked up and etc.

Love your blog neo-neocon. Consider me an ally, from across the pond (veteran of Oona King's doomed campaign against George Galloway, Labour Friends of Iraq activist, and blogger: worldwarfour.blogspot.com)

Keeping it real, as they say.

 
At 8:09 PM, August 12, 2005, Blogger Promethea said...

I can think of four subjects that I have or had special expertise in, and in all four cases the inaccuracies in relevant newspaper reports were huge, even untruthful.

Why do I read the newspaper? I skim it to find the general issues of the day (as defined by the MSM) and once in a while learn something interesting about places to go, movies to see, some new fashion I might not have noticed, etc. Basically, trivia stuff.

If the internet had existed during the Vietnam War, I probably would have become a neocon thirty years ago. Like you, I followed the well-worn rutted tire tracks of liberalism until 9/11, and then the net gave me a fresh look at the world.

I think we can assume that most journalists will continue to write garbage since they can't or won't take the time to learn about their subjects. There will always be a few exceptions, but mediocrity and error will probably always be the rule. It's up to the blogosphere to "deconstruct" the omissions and lies--as is being done with Able Danger this week.

 
At 9:29 PM, August 12, 2005, Blogger camojack said...

That's show biz...
(That's all it is)

 
At 11:32 PM, August 12, 2005, Blogger !!WAKE UP!! said...

Unfortunatly journalism, and television reporting have become nothing more than a buisiness and money can buy anything. Even mainstream news and media broadcasts from the most trusted news sources can be scripted to construct public opinions.
As of late I've come to think of it as the Media Matrix.
The Origional Radio Broadcast of "War of the Worlds" is undeniable truth that people will believe anything trusted media source presents them with no matter how insaine.
There for public opinion can be manipulated through government control and cencorship of popular media and information.
Great blog, investigative reporting about inestigative reporting: I love it.

 
At 1:52 AM, August 13, 2005, Anonymous john moulder said...

I worked at a state agency for over 25 years, an institution that occasionally landed in the news. I never read a newspaper article of any length concerning us that didn’t contain inaccuracies. I am not exaggerating. We used to laugh & wonder at the misinformation they published about us. I’m sure other ex-bureaucrats could relate similar anecdotes. I suspect that much of the time it was ineptitude but sometimes it was seemed that the article was hostile or that our agency was simply being used to make a point – or both.

My city has one major newspaper, which is a bit like a baseball pitcher having one eye. Not a lot of strikes are thrown, but instead mostly advertiser-serving balls are floated around home plate & the powers that be are walked around the bases for easy runs. Without a competing paper there’s nothing to keep the system honest. We used to have two newspapers but the San Antonio Express & News purchased the San Antonio Light & shut it down.

I am against a shield law for the press. I just can’t stand the thought of MSM hacks totally getting away with slime; the present hypocrisies are bad enough – a shield law would only multiply them.

I’m also against any legislation to bring bloggers under the campaign finance laws or any legislation designed to curtail blogs in any manner. The Swift Boat Veterans blog made the liberals really angry & I think the idea of blogs scare a lot of folks in DC on both sides of the aisle. If the blogs were gagged there would be no more Dan Rather/forged documents types of expose. The blog aggregate is like a giant compound eye that sees everything from every conceivable viewpoint & represents a entirely new type of wildcat journalism that if left as is will serve & is serving as healthy counterpoint to the self-serving morass that is today’s mainstream news. We cant expect the MSM to take this subversive(by their view) situation lying down & they are already enlisting politicians in an effort to marginalize that part of the blogosphere that is political.

 
At 5:00 AM, August 13, 2005, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> 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.

This is insufficient excuse in the modern era. With the internet available, any moderately large newspaper could afford to have a person on staff full time to do fact checking on stories as they come in and are selected for consideration. Such person would have a connection to the net, including Lexis/Nexus, and could at least search for gross errors, and, in the aftermath, recheck for more serious ones for the purpose of properly quick retractions even without being prompted by the maligned.

I think the real fact is that most newspapers have little commitment to The Truth as an entity.

This has as much to do with the modern degree of moral relativity our society (via liberals) has adapted, which casts all notions of an Absolute Truth in doubt -- regardless of the obviousness of its existence (short of presuming a Matrix-style existence, anyway).

Newspaper Editors (almost all of them far left liberals) have no belief in said Real Truth any longer, and so facts don't matter as much as not getting in trouble... as long as a story won't get them in trouble, they'll run it with the unvarnished presumption of correctness/appropriateness of a church bulletin editor handed something by the pastor.

 
At 5:39 AM, August 13, 2005, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> I have found is 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.

Gosh, that almost sounds like the equally liberally-dominated career of education

You mean people might need to know something outside of a narrow range in order to be actually good at something? Naaaw. Can't be.

Experience? Breadth of knowledge? Ahhh, those things are useless!!

 
At 7:05 AM, August 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most Journalism schools adopted the Dan Rather 'to change the world' ideology. Any wonder why myopic mainstream journalism would rather defend 'fake but accurate' than simply present an objective report.

Most American journalists believe that their agenda justifies their words regardless of the facts.

Case in point, the American public is force-fed insignificant Cindy Sheehan while left unaware of significant events such as Air America ripping-off humanitarian organization GLORIA or the even greater significant event ABLE DANGER. These events do not reflect MSM's 'change the world' agenda so they are buried.

"Bloggers as watch-dogs' is not only a positive development but is saving our lives and our freedoms.

Susan

 
At 7:51 AM, August 13, 2005, Anonymous strcpy said...

To me, one of the really sad things is that even though I know this, have known it since I began trying to form my political opinions in high school (12 years ago), I still take some of thier reports at face value.

Like others have said, there have been subjects that I could be nominally classified as an expert in (sadly, writing is not one of them), in every single one - even when I add a new one - the news has rarely been anywhere close to factually accurate let alone on thier analysis. Though I don't think it is intentional in most cases (not sure which is more sad, incompetance or dishonesty).

Yet, I find my self buying some of what they say. For instance I happly watch(ed) reports on wasted money in research. One I know of (in my last job I knew some of the principle researchers) was a study to figure out why a shower curtain blows inwards during a shower instead of outwards. Models showed it would do other wise (I am a computer scientist, I knew them through my work in high performance computing). They figured it out and in fluid dynamics it was pretty important and revolutionary. From just the description of "We now know why a shower curtain billows inwards" it is worthless. A headline "200k of research funding saves airlines billions and will lead to a 10% increase in car fuel efficiency" is worth quite a bit more. Both are factually accurate, though thier analysis kinda left off what this meant to fluid dynamics. I've always wondered if the study of the flow of ketsup had other such application. OTOH I have seen worthless well known research projects. The principle researchers would even generally admit to such.

*sigh* I now try to not particularly believe or disbileave anything they say - even factual information (X number of items occured, so-and-so died - they have been wrong on all of those). I try and file it under "unproved, don't use without further research" when using the info, if I find something interesting I tend to do more research. As others have said, the internet has really facilitated this, before I tried to not use them to form my opinions, though that is hard to do when they are your only source of information.

 
At 8:37 AM, August 13, 2005, Anonymous Paul said...

The fourth estate is shaky at times, but I still advocate a free press.

 
At 8:52 AM, August 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the problem, at this point we don't have a free press we have a censor news press.

Susan

 
At 1:02 PM, August 13, 2005, Anonymous kung fu said...

You want to understand the press, "follow the money." It's all about profit, that great American tradition. Enron? Worldcom? Halliburton? NY Times? USA Today? Fox News? Come on, they're just trying to make a buck. Or should I say bucks, lots of them.

 
At 5:15 PM, August 13, 2005, Blogger David said...

kung fu...if the NYT is really just trying to make a buck, they don't seem to be doing all that good a job of it:

Stock Price

 
At 3:24 AM, August 18, 2005, Blogger Kenneth said...

If you like old movies (Doris Day and Clark Gable, 1958) watch Teacher's Pet which is stil pretty spot on about the issues of journalism. Gable is a hard nosed city desk editor who tangles with a j-school professor (Day) regarding issues of the craft/profession. Gig Young is hillarious in a supporting role.

 
At 11:44 AM, August 20, 2005, Anonymous Christopher Fotos said...

I've been saying for years that a great way to waste your life is to major in journalism.

But does anybody listen to me? No, they do not.

 
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At 3:28 AM, March 28, 2006, Blogger Eddie said...

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At 8:47 PM, February 08, 2008, Blogger Annie Jia said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 8:47 PM, February 08, 2008, Blogger Annie Jia said...

Hi,
I really like the point you are making. I am not a neo-con; I am a staunch liberal; but that is not relevant. I think your point is universally applicable, and not only in journalism, but in any arena where there is debate.

I am a young science and environmental journalist who has done a lot of thinking about the trade of journalism. There seem to be two main components: (1) good writing (2) the pursuit of truth, good reporting, integrity. The second is of utmost importance to me, and I see it as core to the discipline of journalism. But I am beginning to see, as you said, that perhaps not all journalists see it, or practice it, that way.

I'd be interested in corresponding more about this subject. I am seeing it relevant in many places, including the debate on the Democratic candidates. If you'd like, please feel free to e-mail me at anniejia at gmail dot com. (Also, shameless plug, Zyou can check out my blog http://truegreenwriting.blogspot.com I tackle some of the big issues about journalism; perhaps you may be interested if journalism is a topic you are generally interested in).
Thanks for your writings.

 

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