Journalism: What's wrong with this picture?

Journalism, at one time, was a noble profession where those charged with its mission worked tirelessly to expose wrongdoing, pursue truth, open doors that are bolted closed and hold elected officials accountable for their actions.

Journalists denied self for the greater good of all people.

Journalists of the silver screen and squawk box romanticized this, and few walked away from The Killing Fields or All the President’s Men without wanting to take up the torch and run the thankless race to be the eyes and ears of the public.

However, in the past 30 years, society’s love affair with journalism has waned. The final breakup between belief in journalists and extreme skepticism can be traced directly back to the damaging actions of New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who was found to have plagiarized and fabricated his stories. From that time, the profession has been plagued by the general public’s lack of trust in journalistic efforts and motives.

With the competition fierce between television and Internet, broadcast journalists often slant their news coverage for entertainment value. The public confuses the concept of media, which is more broadcast-based, and the press, print-based news outlets. This means the challenge of newspaper journalists, of which I was proud to call myself for 20 years, has become increasingly more difficult, as we must carry the weight of “news-ertainment” coverage on TV.

Added to the distortion of news importance has been the advent of 24-hour news coverage networks. Minor news events become inflated and expanded to prevent dead airwaves. Celebrity gossip is repeated every 15 minutes, with different angles and slight updates taking the place of actual news coverage. These stories are overflowing with sound bytes and video coverage outside peoples’ houses, exploiting tragedy and crassly sticking microphones into the faces of parents who have just lost their children, asking the question that always causes me to cringe: “So, how do you feel?” “Your daughter was just slaughtered by a neighborhood boy. How does that make you feel? What are you thinking?”

Are you serious? These “journalists” scurry in during tragic events and exploit the occasions for ratings and then slink back out of town, leaving the local community journalists to deal with the real stories of people’s lives and run damage control for the chaos caused by the vultures.

Also being filtered into the process is the popularity of citizen journalism, which, in theory, is a positive enterprise; however, untrained amateurs are not bound by the ethics of professional journalism. Because people tend to believe whatever rant they want to, this damages the integrity of the profession. Those who choose to behave as citizen journalists have a responsibility to educate themselves on the mission and ethics of true journalism.

Just as damaging and irresponsible is the inexperience of supposed seasoned journalists who don’t take time to understand or develop an ownership of responsibility to the community they serve. Print journalists attempting to compete with legitimate online news organizations must first remember the responsibility they owe to the people they are attempting to inform. They must not be irresponsible in their coverage just to beat the competition.

For instance, in my 20 years providing news coverage, we only reported on suicides when extreme circumstances dictated it, and then, we did so responsibly. While the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics do not dictate rules in the coverage of suicides, journalists have a duty to not exaggerate or sensationalize a suicide. This type of irresponsibility can not only encourage copycat behavior, but also cause undue pain and suffering for the loved ones left behind.

This mode of thinking is why we chose not to cover a recent suicide in the community on our news magazine site, www.ThisIsBrownCounty.com. All reports and information we received indicated that the death was a suicide, while law enforcement officers investigated the incident completely, just to make sure. Sensationalizing the news coverage just to be first is not responsible, and we refuse to publicize information without having the facts.

This type of news coverage is not how we choose to operate, and if it causes people to think we’re not doing our jobs properly, then that is their prerogative. We won’t compromise our values and ethics to be “first” or to “beat” the competition, a practice that we believe also continues to damage the integrity of journalism.

Finally, the industry has taken a hit, and continues to be pillaged, by corporate bean-counters who are far removed from the mission of journalism and, therefore, will sacrifice news coverage for a profit. As diehard journalists become increasingly frustrated with this situation, the pool of those who remember what journalism is all about is getting smaller and smaller. My hope is that, somehow, the profession can sustain the pressure.

These issues are creating a grassroots revolution among journalists who refuse to compromise their integrity. These authentic journalists and those who have been laid off during budgetary cuts at larger newspapers are branching out and launching their own news organizations that stay faithful to the true mission of journalism – to inform people in a fair, accurate and concise manner, to hold officials responsible to the people they serve, to ensure an open and transparent government, and to cause no unnecessary harm to the people they cover.

Our primary mission at This Is Brown County is to continue being community journalists; to report the news you want and not to sensationalize it just because we can; to be your voice and your site; and to create a social networking venue for our community on the World Wide Web. This is your news organization.

We are one of you. You know us and we know you. We are locally owned, locally operated and locally empowered… and This Is Brown County. Life is different here…


  • Anabel Hopkins

    My husand and I discuss this situation often. How little things become 48-hour unending “breakingnews.” Was there nothing of real interest going on during the day-long coverage of balloon boy? Why is every little gaffe magnified ad infinitum? I think it started when TV news departments were told to become profit centers. News ended, entertainment began. You are correct that the 24-hour cable cycle requires a lot of content. That could be real news, but that would be too much work, I guess! They think (Maybe correctly, that our attention span is about 1 minute, too. Nothing in-depth, PLEASE.)

    Glad you are doing this, Linda, best of luck.

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