Saturday, December 27, 2014

In defense of journalists

OK folks, I have to get something off my chest. I'm saying this as my personal opinion and not as a representative of any business or organization. So bear with me.

I'm a journalist. I wanted to be a journalist from the time I was 15 and I took my first reporting class in high school. I majored in journalism at one of the best schools for such things, the University of Missouri-Columbia. I've worked at newspapers both large and small since 1998. I want to continue working in journalism until I retire or I succeed in supporting myself with my fiction writing.

It's probably no surprise that I get touchy when people who have little or no experience with the news industry say insulting things about the well-intentioned people who work their butts off every day to ensure that the public is an informed public instead of an ignorant and oblivious public.

I often find myself defending my profession and getting scoffed at. Or being told that I'm wrong because this one person on this one occasion happened to get burned by an asshole who happened to be a journalist.

That's not to minimize the experience of people who have had bad personal encounters with the media. I feel for you. I really do. It's a public forum in which you are getting burned. Yes, there are assholes out there. Yes, some of them are journalists. I wish that wasn't the case. But making assumptions that we are all assholes because we are journalists is plain wrong. There is no direct correlation between those two categories.

That's true of all professions. But I'm a journalist, so that's what I'm going to talk about. I should also point out that I'm talking about newspaper journalists, not those you see on television or listen to on the radio. Print journalists are not broadcast journalists. I have issues with 24-7 cable news, and I'm not going to defend those folks. They can defend themselves.

Here are some things I want you to know about journalists. Some of you will think I'm naive. Go ahead and think that if it makes you feel better. I've worked in newsrooms for 15 years, and this is based on my experiences.

1. Most journalists are nice, well-intentioned people.
Not all journalists are nice people. As I said above, some are assholes. But most of us are journalists because we believe in the ideals of the profession. We believe that in order to succeed, a democracy must have a free press. We believe that the media plays the important role of watchdog for the government. We believe that people have a right (if not a duty) to know what is going on in their city, state, nation and world.

Are there journalists who got into it because they are ego maniacs who want to see their name in print? Sure. How about those who are secretly (or not so secretly) pressing a certain agenda? Yep. (See below.) There are even those who simply fell into the profession because it looked like something they could do and then found they were in over their head. There are exceptions. I know journalists who fell into the profession, and they are fantastic. I married one of the fantastic ones. Others are not so fantastic.

Those awful Machiavellian reporters you see on television shows and in movies, the ones who will do anything to get the story, the ones who have no soul ... I have yet to meet one of those. Maybe they exist. But not anywhere I've ever worked.

The point is, journalists are not the enemy. We are doing what we do so you can be an informed member of society. The paycheck is also nice, but really, we don't get rich doing this. If we wanted money, we would be doing pretty much anything else. Sometimes we make mistakes. We are human, which means we are fallible. But mistakes are just that: mistakes. Not conspiracies. Speaking of ...

2. Most journalists are not secretly (or not so secretly) pushing an agenda.
In my career, this is the accusation that has been leveled against me more than any other. I don't write articles. I'm a copy editor. I edit articles from the reporters in my newsroom and from the wire services (Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Times, etc.), and write the display type (headlines, photo captions, etc.)

Currently, I am wire editor at my newspaper, which means I am also in charge of our national and international coverage. I read everything that is available to me to print through our wire services and choose what to use and where to use it. Sometimes I get angry calls from readers. About half the time, I'm accused of pushing a Republican agenda. The other half of the time, I'm accused of pushing a Democratic agenda. I've also been accused of being both anti-Israeli and anti-Palestinian, and other things. It's interesting what strangers think they know about me by analyzing what I put in the paper.

Here's what I tell those callers: I am limited in what I can put in the newspaper by what I get from the wire services we subscribe to. Within those limitations, I do my best to provide a comprehensive, fair, balanced and accurate wire report. I have never and will never push an agenda. No, I won't tell you my personal opinions on anything. My personal opinions don't matter because I separate them from my work. I'm a professional.

Most journalists I have worked with over the years are the same. They are professionals. A few aren't. Most of the time, the assholes end up getting fired because their non-professional behavior bites them in the butt. Any journalist who survives in the business for decades is one who is doing his or her best to live up to the ideals of the profession.

3. But, wait. Newspapers are a business, aren't they?
Yes they are. Newspapers are in the business of making money. The entire industry has struggled with that in recent years thanks to the Internet. People nowadays expect to get their news online for free and their classifieds online, again for free. Here's the problem: The people who produce the news expect to get paid. The newspaper industry hasn't figured out how to replace the lost revenue from subscriptions, classifieds and advertising with online pennies.

There's a lot of noise out there, not only from professional news organizations but also from blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. There are also agenda-pushers who present themselves as professional journalists, but they're not. With all this noise, it's difficult for any newspaper to make itself heard, to sell subscriptions and to get those precious online clicks.

That means we're all looking for a big story that we can own, that no one else has. It could be politics, crime, culture or sports. We are trying to sell newspapers, so we can keep making more newspapers.

What will happen if the noise wins out over the professional news groups? If all anyone reads is Twitter and Facebook and the blog postings of agenda-pushers who claim to be journalists, and if people cancel their newspaper subscriptions and rely on Rush Limbaugh or Jon Stewart for their news, then real journalism will fade away. No more fair and balanced. No more professionalism.

Then people really will have something to complain about.

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