Crisis in journalism

I have spent most of my adult life working in and around the media. I’ve been a publisher, an editor, a reporter and a PR-flak. I studied this stuff in college, and I’ve always been romanced by the lure of ink-stained wretches talking fast and getting the scoop, and the girl, all the while driving the city editor crazy — you know, a bad 1940s B&W.

At one time, I was deeply involved in the Society of Professional Journalists. You can’t get too deep in SPJ without getting a good dose of ethical reinforcement. SPJ takes ethics pretty seriously. (ED: So how do you explain the glaring lack of ethics in the profession? Easy. Most reporters and editors are not personally invested in SPJ, to their detriment and the professions.)

At one time, however, I did believe most journalists were like me — eager to get the scoop, but to get it right and get it honestly. Sure, I made my share of mistakes. What young reporter doesn’t? But I believed I was on the right track. And as a consequence, I pretty much believed EVERYTHING I read in the newspaper.

It was only after I got out of journalism for a while that I began to realize accuracy and honesty are not always hallmarks of some reporters’ days. As the subject of some stories (while working as a PR flak for a politician) that were rife factual errors, hyperbole, slanted presentation and sensationalism, it dawned on me that some of the writers I once respected were never really worthy of that respect.

It was a humbling experience. And I realized that one of my greatest sins as a reporter had been a tendency to sensationalize. I called it good writing — finding the conflict in any story, and highlighting it in the first few graphs. That was my style. But I realized that such a practice was potentially dishonest because you were shaping the news instead of presenting it factually. Not all contradictions rise to the level of conflict, and any artificial device aimed at limelighting conflict is potentially dangerous.

From that point forward, my approach to media (as a consumer) was a little more cautious. I wasn’t ready to scuttle the ship, but I was like a duck — sleeping with one eye open.

My confidence the media eroded further as I paid more attention to its tendency to make every issue a crisis, or a threat or a danger. In the pre-9/11 days (not that this practice has stopped, it just seems more ironic to look back at that time now), even everyday activities could be life threatening, according to the media — people were dying from cancer because of their cell phones, buildings with bad fire-warning systems abounded, restaurants were getting better health ratings than they should, old ladies were getting scammed by dating services, your computer monitor could blind you — all generally concerns of some legitimacy, but top of the fold, or top of the hour stuff? I don’t think so.

I was just in a state of despair about my chosen profession.

And the ironic part of the 9/11 angle I allude to above is this: While the media warned us about crisis after crisis that weren’t really crises, a real crisis was brewing. How much reporting about al Quada did the media give us prior to 9/11? How much analysis was there of what a threat this group represented, and how they might attack, and how prepared we were to deal with it? Everybody wants an investigation and an answer to the question: Why did our government fail us? Well, what about the media? Doesn’t the media have some responsibility in all of this, too? If the media had been paying closer attention to the real threats we faced, maybe we would have been better prepared, or maybe the government would have felt some political pressure to do something simple — like reinforce cockpit doors?

I wish somebody would fund a study: What the media could have known and reported about al Quada prior to 9/11 and what difference it might have made if there had been more robust coverage?

As the internet has matured as an information resource, with a greater ability to fact check the media, or more easily obtain alternative views, angles and first-person accounts, I’ve become even more distressed about the state of media affairs. It’s almost as if accuracy doesn’t matter, at least on big national and international stories.

I think back to the whole “Shock and Awe” frenzy. I was incredulous that this “strategy” was getting so much ink and air time. By the time the first bombs dropped on Baghdad, the story angle became a joke. Hardly anyone in the media stopped to think about three important things:

  1. The original draft of Shock and Awe was written before we had fully developed our precision bombing capabilities;
  2. No professional military personnel is going to obey unlawful orders to indiscriminately bomb civilian populations — not in this day and age;
  3. The Pentagon, even as a leak, isn’t going to reveal its true strategic plan to a reporter from the Washington Post.

As I watched the pre-war and war coverage unfold, I was dumbfounded to find how full of beans it was — full of speculation, unfounded assumptions, rushes to judgment (in supposedly FACTUAL, hard-news stories), unsubstantiated rumor and innuendo, mischaracterizations, wild-eyed predictions, ignorance of the military and military operations,¬†and an overarching sense that everything that could possibly go wrong has or will go wrong.

And the overriding factor in all such reporting — the use of unnamed sources.

Unnamed sources have become the crack cocaine of Beltway journalism.

If you review Editor & Publisher’s journalistic issues of 2003, you see a pattern — no matter what side of the political divide you may fall on some of these stories, you can point to instances where journalists used bad judgment in how they went about getting the story. From the Lynch affair, to the Plame controversy, journalists who paid scant attention to verifiable facts, and too much attention to anonymous sources, overhyped and oversold.

Survey after survey has shown that the American public is becoming increasingly distrustful of journalists. If there is one thing my colleagues should be in crisis mode about is how little they are trusted, but as far as I can tell, few media organizations take such warnings seriously. The kind of major reforms of newsrooms that need to take place — such as banning unnamed sources, jettisoning unsourced speculation, squelching¬†opinion masquerading as fact, toning down crisis-mode reporting, telling a few good-news stories once in a while (and such stories, contrary to journalistic myth can be compelling and sell papers) — doesn’t seem to be happening. It’s business as usual, at least at the major media outlets.

And what inspired this rant — this speech (via Instapundit) by Michael Crichton on rampant speculation in the media and what it means for public policy.

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