Saturday, May 14, 2005

Journalism, the American Dream, & the Red Convertible Cadillac

Are there more lazy, dishonest reporters working these days?

I graduated from college yesterday; the end of an eight-year membership in the Texas higher education system. Two degrees: Journalism and Creative Writing. Most people don't see the irony. I say beneficial, some say conflict of interest. I say tomAto, you say tomOto. I dream of two Pulitzer Prizes - best fiction, best news. Two people with little in common finding love and holding hands in our free society.

You want to know what the American Dream is? It's not about getting rich. It's not about having power and influence. It's going to bed every night anxious to wake up the next morning for another opportunity to live the waking dream. The American Dream is not tangible. It's a purpose - change the world, teach the children of the world how to read, save the environment - and it's the means - selling books, teaching high school English, riding the back of a garbage truck two days a week picking bags of trash off the curb - to the end of a solitary life.

My American Dream: inspire others to follow through with their dreams. My means: journalism. What it's not: money.

I knew from the beginning that Journalism is probably the third-most underpaid job (the first being teaching & the second being police work). And right now, a journalist's reputation is tainted by the flaws of those that came before him. Plagiarism, fictitious stories, public relations editorials, they all plague the tradition. David Shaw is right about many things in his LA Times article except for a few points.

First, New Journalism. In the late 19th century, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer authored the first New Journalism movement with sensational headlines, graphic photography, and embelleshed news and crime stories. It was a hit with the public like today's reality TV phenomenon. Real life with unbelievable twists and quirks. When Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson re-introduced New Journalism into the American society during the 60s and 70s, it was their narrative style that the people loved; writing fact, making it as readable as fiction. And the people ate that up. It made money. It sold magazines. And, in Journalism, the sad truth is that the bottom-line is the important factor. With 60% of every newspaper devoted to advertising, subscribers and newsstand buyers - those people we are writing for - don't pay enough.

How does the blogosphere play into all of this? Two ways. First, the New Journalism movement of the 60s and 70s emerged as the 1st person narrative style. Instead of the Voice of God reporting people were used to, these writers made sure the readers were aware that God had nothing to do with the story. Through the "I did this" and "I saw this" subjectivity, the readers saw the objective truth because they could see the writers and could see what the writers were seeing. The diary-like, unrestrained style of blogs stands in the shadow of the "pre-historic" media of the 60s and 70s. Only it's changed...It's real-time, interactive "reporting."

Second, the blogosphere gives the public its voice back. We're seeing a revolution between bloggers and journalists because, as Shaw states, journalists and editors alike have become too concerned with personal fame and the bottom-line to remember that the "media" is not an organization or corporation, it's the plural of "medium" - meaning the middle voice between John Q. Public and Big Business/Government.

Instead of trying to replace the media, though, bloggers are depending more heavily on Journalists. Bloggers link to stories by good journalists as a verification tool for the blogger's opinion/post to make the post and blogger credible. Unfortunately, a lot of journalists don't see this relationship. They only see the negative posts that focus on liberal bias, faulty reporting, and questionable facts. But even that's a plus. A journalist's first priority is accuracy. What's so wrong with having citizen fact-checkers? Nobody likes to have their work critiqued, even the editing process hurts when that personal-favorite transition phrase gets cut for space limitations, but when you write for the public shouldn't their take and expertise on a given story have at least some merit on the story? If a reporter is writing a story about a Supreme Court decision, wouldn't an ideal source be a laywer rather than another journalist (in the form of editor approval)?

Because of blogger impact, we are seeing a need for the improvment of industry-wide standards. Journalists are going to be held to higher benchmarks because of the blogger presence. So, I disagree with Shaw's final take on the future of journalistic ethics - I think journalism will get more reliable. There will be less fabrication and plagiarism because there will be more people fact-checking everything. How many times will a respectable newspaper have to fire employees for unethical practices before they decide standards need to be re-written?


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