Journalism: A Dying Art?
By Kathy Kaveh
By vocation, a journalist’s job is a more detailed and socially significant version of a police report: “Just the facts.” A journalist gathers facts, interviews sources, does research, then writes a professional and unbiased piece presenting all sides of a story. This process is not an easy task, but it is a simple and straightforward one.
But increasingly, this simple art has all but vanished. In the wake of social media and an all-too curious public, journalists are becoming more and more like gossip machines using their expertise and credentials to fuel their readers’ interests in the most unethical and unprofessional manner.
First let me make it clear that I am not by any means saying that there are no longer any good journalists in the world or that every article out there is frivolous or badly written. I am simply talking about a disturbing and increasing trend of what was once deemed unacceptable in journalism becoming a norm.
It all begins with the stories themselves. When I open an Internet search engine such as Yahoo or even a reputable news site, I am bombarded by so many headlines that I have to filter what is even “news” and what is plain gossip. Important political and social news pieces are buried among articles about the Kardashians and lifestyles (or lack thereof) of other celebrities. (Which is why I get all my news on the Internet rather than on television because that way I have control over what I choose to read instead of what is simply forced upon me.) Now I’ll admit that I myself sometimes let the media get the best of me and actually click on and read a “just-for-fun” article. We’re all curious and like it or not, Hollywood, royalty and other such gossip do peak our interests. But there should be a limit where journalists are concerned. There’s nothing wrong with people being curious about “trivial matters” and journalists feeding a hungry public. There is something wrong, however, when these frivolous stories seem to by far outnumber the ones on real issues taking place around the world.
Americans have an unfortunate reputation of not knowing anything about the world outside their own perimeters. I once heard a non-American say, “Unless someone shot someone else in one of the 50 states, Americans just don’t care.” Too many American adults, let alone children, do not even know the names of major countries in the world, let alone care what is happening inside those countries. The media saturates our culture. And if that media doesn’t expose viewers to worldly matters, then how is the public going to learn about them?
Journalism is about truth. Withholding information, whether about a certain fact or detail, or a story in general, is a form of lying.
Then there’s the problems within the news stories themselves. In journalism school, subjects such as “reporting,” “writing news articles,” “fact checking,” “editing,” “interviewing” and “ethical and moral issues in the mass media” are required fields of study. Actually knowing how to construct a sentence is a given. It was in journalism school where I learned the difference between a regular article and an editorial, two completely styles of writing. The piece you are reading is an editorial. It is my opinion based on a certain issue. In such a piece, the whole point is to bring my opinions into play. If I was writing a fact-based article on the developments in Israel, however, my opinions would be uncalled for and unethical. This line between straight reporting and editorializing has become blurred.
With the array of media outlets, writers of all kinds have plenty of opportunities to let out their opinions. There are blogs, editorials, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, countless publications devoted to writers’ personal experiences, talk shows, etc. It is unnecessary to sway from basic journalistic standards of reporting or writing stories when journalists have so many other forums for their personal voices to be heard.
I recently read a simple, “just-the-facts” article about actor Brian Austin Green and his wife Megan Fox being hit by a drunk driver. The headline was sensationalized, making it seem like the celebrity couple of (two) children was dead or seriously injured. Fast-forward to the crux of the article where it turns out that the accident was a mere fender-bender, all parties were fine and the children were not even in the car. But what was most disturbing about the article was the lead paragraph. The writer had begun the piece insinuating that we “normal people” should have no room for complaint about our mundane problems because this celebrity couple got into a “near-fatal” accident the previous night. The onslaught of comments following the article was filled with rage against the writer. As one person said, “My son has autism and I have to work two jobs just to make ends meet, but you’re right, I should be so grateful for my life because things could be so much worse and my Range Rover could have a dent in it.” The lead paragraph of this minor story was filled with so much dogmatic, sarcastic preaching that the actual story had lost all its merit.
That story is just a small example of what I see in articles on an almost-daily basis: journalists throwing in their two cents about what should be just straight-up reporting. Some do it blatantly, others more subtly.
A comma snuck in where it doesn’t belong, a word in italics, an exclamation point in lieu of a period, incorrect paragraph placement…any of these nuances are subtle ways in which a writer can sway a reader’s opinion and change the tone of an article without stepping out of obvious ethical boundaries.
Another example is the Bill Cosby scandal. My position is not to defend or defame him. But quite simply, the media has convicted this man of serious allegations outside a court of law. Bombarding the Internet with news of the latest alleged victim is fine. A story is a story. But three examples on how these stories were presented solidify my point of unethical journalism. The first is a slew of articles I’ve read where the writers claim that Bill Cosby’s lawyer has defended him, then the writers proceed to list the allegations. Standard journalism would have that story written in reverse order. First the allegations, then the statement from his attorney. To do so in the other order is in essence saying, “His lawyer is defending him, but now look at all these different allegations that he’s defending.” A subtle shift in the presentation of the same facts changes the implications of the story.
The second example was when Phylicia Rashad’s quote of “Forget those women” was taken completely out of context by the interviewer and made it sound like she was implying that what had allegedly happened to those women didn’t matter whereas she was simply saying that this case is much bigger than that.
Then there was the CNN reporter who got an exclusive interview with Bill Cosby and the comedian asked for parts of his comments or lack thereof to be off the record. This small clip was broadcast all over the media. “Off the record” means just that. Since when do journalists or news editors take it upon themselves to make these moral calls based on what they deem the public should know? A studio is not a courtroom.
And of course, the most obvious case in point is the onslaught of exaggerations Brian Williams is accused of presenting as facts in his decades as a journalist. In addition to straight lying and withholding information, exaggeration is yet another form of mis-representation of facts.
Last but not least is the actual writing. Articles on the Internet are filled with typos, mis-spellings, incorrect punctuation, subject/verb disagreement, unanswered questions and questionable sources. I’m wondering where the editors are when writers can’t distinguish between “its” and “it’s,” when “his” is written “her,” and when The National Enquirer has become a reputable source for legitimate newspapers. Headlines read, “New information” about a certain story but within the article, there is nothing new from what the newspaper reported the previous day. I have read articles where this was the extent of fact-checking and interviewing: “A source close to a source close to the victim’s family has said…”
The ultimate was this line in an article in which the writer was referring to the actual story she herself had written: “This information may or may not be true.”
I officially take out the question mark off the title of this article.
From basic writing, interviewing, fact-checking, editing, being unbiased, ethical issues, fair but straightforward reporting, and lying in one form or another, journalism is indeed a dying art.