Don’t get me wrong. I’m as disgusted as the next person that the big TV honchos have lost their way, sending obsequious emails to Sanford promising to let the governor “frame the conversation as you really wanted” (not even bothering to be subtle, eh, Gregory?), and giving a black eye to journalists everywhere by refusing to call a lie a lie for little other reason than fear of being accused of false bias.
But I just wanted to pause for a minute in our “they don’t make ’em like they used to” lament and say a quick word to honor those journalists who are still, right NOW, laboring in the trenches doing good work, despite challenges that I think even the likes of Cronkite and Halberstam might have struggled with.
Like others in our current economy, they’ve seen friends and mentors laid off or take buyouts; they’ve had to adapt to an increasing workload and declining morale. But they still love a good story. They’d rather quit than sell their integrity to an advertiser or a crooked pol. They care about what they do. They double-check facts – and wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night if they think they got something – even a small thing – wrong (do you know how many times I’ve heard that anecdote?)
I can tell you first-hand that the vast majority of what I’ll call “real journalists” – often not the famous ones in the glamorous, big market jobs – are thoughtful, passionate, and work hard because they truly believe that it is important to their communities and to democracy itself.
I’m not just rhapsodizing away here – I’ve done the reporting. I spent three years traveling to newsrooms all over the country between 2002 and 2005 for the Committee of Concerned Journalists. I don’t have the numbers on hand at the moment, but I can tell you from crunching the numbers myself from the surveys we conducted that the majority of them told us they got into journalism to do good or serve the public. It sure as heck wasn’t for the money.
Our workshops were full of passionate discussions about the struggle to get it right. They didn’t view bias or objectivity in a simplistic way as many assume, but a nuanced one, and they worried and strategized about things like trying to cover all races and classes in their community better, or how to better engage the public on important issues.
My current academic research involves in-depth interviews with newspaper journalists from all departments – from online to the features design team – and all levels, from executive editors to the fresh-out-of-school reporters. These folks do not resist change in the way many new media pundits think. While they may fear change (don’t most of us?), they have thought hard about how their jobs could intelligently evolve in an online era. They know what their core values are, and they want to find ways to carry these into the future. Indeed, the obstacles to change come less from the individual recalcitrance that is often blamed, than the power of routines and broader systemic factors (I’ll write more about this later).
And then there are my students, whose eyes gleam when they get a good story, when they realize that they can hold school administrators’ feet to the fire, when they know they have a scoop.
Browse the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) Web site. Look at some of the Pulitzer Prize winners. Check out the Center for Public Integrity. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has an impressive watchdog team. Media Storm is making hard-hitting, long-form multimedia work. And that’s just scratching the surface. Good journalism is everywhere – if you bother to read or watch it.
Anyway. I’m not trying to say journalism doesn’t have problems and failures (and we sure do flagellate ourselves about those, don’t we?). And YES, there are bad journalists, just as their are bad doctors and lawyers and yadda yadda. Unfortunately, far too many of them seem to work in the highest profile jobs on television.
I believe that citizen journalists, bloggers, etc. do and will contribute importantly to the work of watchdogging and telling important stories, so I’m not just toot tooting for the MSM here, either.
But if we fail to honor the good stuff we DO have in the pursuit of an ideal that may or may not have been as bright as we think (would Cronkite had been the same competing against the cable networks in a 24-7 news environment? In the middle of a massive economic cluster!@%? I hope so, but who’s to say for sure?), I think we will ultimately ensure the demise of good journalism rather than continue to improve it.