Defending the press

In the eyes of the public, being a journalist used to be cool. Rumpled fedoras, lots of vodka, foreign excursions and living on the edge. Not every kid wanted to be Edward R. Murrow, but to some of us, it looked like a very cool job.

These days, the reputation of journalists is reminding me of that old joke about lawyers. You know the one: “What do you call ten lawyers at the bottom of a lake? A good start.”

I get it – like bad ambulance-chasing lawyers, there are newspapers and TV networks who do an abysmal job practicing the art of journalism.

And even a journalist with the best of intention can make a bad call. Since Friday’s horrific school shootings, we’ve heard a great deal of criticism about the media covering the story.

That criticism includes some very valid comments. Several journalists showed questionable judgement interviewing young children.

A few recent events have driven home that public sentiment for me.┬áLast week, I saw an article about a Navy SEAL from my hometown who was killed in Afghanistan. The comments on the article expressed dismay and disgust that “the media” had contacted the dead Navy SEAL’s family.

I am here today not to bury journalism, but to praise it.

I’m admittedly biased – I’m a journalist, for one, and I’ve been a news nerd since I was a kid. I was watching Watergate hearings when I was four or five.

In fourth grade, our class had a project where we wrote about ourselves. The other boys in the class wrote about their bikes or model airplanes. I wrote that I was following the news about the Jonestown massacre. (One of many reasons that my teachers thought I was odd!)

For me, knowledge has always meant reassurance. I was never good at fighting with my fists, but as they say, knowledge is power. I fight, when needed, with words.

And I’ve always found comfort in knowing all that I could. I also looked up to and respected the people who told the stories of other people.

Younger people might be mystified by the hero worship of journalists like Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings, but there was a calmness in their presence that announced to the audience: This is happening. And this, too, shall pass.

What I can tell you is this: As imperfect as our press might be, it is a free press. It may be clogged with the sediment of public relations fluff and infotainment tripe, but its heart still beats.

Just today, news that NBC News reporter Richard Engel was free from being captured in Syria was made public. People are still working on your behalf, putting their lives on the line to find out what’s happening in the world.

I understand in the case of the Navy SEAL from my hometown that his family didn’t want to speak to the press, and certainly their wishes (and anyone’s wishes in that situation) should be respected.

A friend of mine has faced the media recently as a result of the Connecticut shootings, and I’m reminded that it’s an intense spotlight to be in, particularly at a time of such loss and sorrow.

But in the case of war casualties, for example, many families WANT to tell the story of their loved one, and talk about a loss in a war that, to them, feels like it’s been vastly underreported. Many families want all of us to know what their loved one lost, or what they lost, and want us to clearly understand the cost.

news_leadWhat a private person might see as hounding, though, is a habit of persistence that we developed in the face of a lot of closed doors in political chambers, legal chambers and corporate boardrooms. We dig deeper to try to keep you as informed as possible.

I know a lot of the things we dig up aren’t pleasant. They don’t fit simply into neat piles. They don’t end like a sitcom, with all the loose ends tied up in twenty-three minutes.

They defy simplification, and while some opinion-based news programs will try to make the news black or white, us versus them…very little in news, and in life, breaks down that way.

And when your own life is filled with challenges, or work, or drudgery, or sadness, or is packed wall to wall with life itself that keeps you too busy to stop and take a breath, absorbing bad news is the last thing in the world many of us want to do.

We’d collectively rather read Us Weekly, or watch Honey Boo Boo, or something equally ridiculous that lets us hang up our brain, and breathe, and laugh.

I understand that. I totally get it.

But I’m here to tell you we shouldn’t lose sight of the value of our press.

It is a right spelled out for us in the FIRST Amendment, after all. There’s been a great deal of rhetoric in recent years about our Constitution, and freedom of the press is a cornerstone of the rights we so clearly value as Americans.

And if you’ve been taking that right for granted, understand that in many places, we’re in danger of losing the voices that make a free press.

Technology and the Web has brought massive changes to the ways information is shared, and while it’s made access more immediate in some ways, it’s also devastated some media platforms – especially the ones who do long-form, deep, thorough and thoughtful journalism.

The list of cities that have lost a daily newspaper includes some substantial U.S. cities: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Albuquerque, Honolulu and Denver, to name a few.

Detroit and New Orleans have newspapers that print less frequently. The Plain Dealer, long Cleveland’s voice of the people, is potentially facing the same reduction in publication.

You may think that it’s the nature of our corporate world today, that mergers lead to those exciting buzzwords like “synergy” and “economies of scale,” and hey, if it means a couple of jobs are lost, then journalists are just like the next guy (or woman) and have to suck it up.

Except that when you lose reporters, you lose the eyes and ears that can find out that your city council spent your taxpayer money on trips to the Bahamas.

You lose the experienced researchers who can tell you not only that something IS happening, but provide the context of WHY it is happening.

And what you have in its absence is something like The Huffington Post – a collection of language without any real structure. You end up with a snippet of a story that tells readers only the basic facts, and leaves the readers to fill in the blanks by themselves.

That isn’t really news – it’s a big vat of misinformation, and it feeds on itself.

Journalists have a responsibility to the public, and we have an ethical responsibility to do our jobs in the best, kindest, most transparent way we can. I agree with that, and I know some of my fellow journalists need to do a better job.

But I’d argue that all of us need to value the work that journalists do for our readers and viewers — and our country. If you’re finding the fluff, the opinion channels, and the tabloids lacking, then dig around for more news sources.

Find a newspaper that has longer, more in-depth articles. Listen to NPR or any TV or radio source that takes more than 30 seconds to explore an issue. If you want better journalism, value the great work that’s being done.

As a journalism (and a recent returning student), I have a dog-eared copy of a book called The Elements of Journalism in my library. It’s a fantastic book that talks not so much about the work of doing journalism – the editing and the arrangement – as it does the reasons WHY we do what we do.

There are ten commandments, so to speak, about what journalists are obligated to do. We are bound to truth. Our obligation is to citizens and our readers. We are disciplined to be objective researchers, avoiding conflicts of interest with those we cover and verifying all we see and say.

The last “commandment” is important to the work that we do, too. It says, “Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.”

And the biggest one is to decide, as a culture, whether we collectively value truth, value information and value the fine art of journalism – even when the results make us angry, challenges norms, or makes us feel uncomfortable.

We are in an age where corporate interests drive newspapers, and television, and the Internet. And it’s up to the public to be clear about what you value. As with politics and politicians, involvement is crucial, and it’s quite frankly what all of us owe our democracy.

We will collectively end up, as they say, with the journalism we ask for — and the journalism we deserve.