Reclaiming journalism would be good for us all

Signs expressing an opinion on media at the 2016 RNC in Cleveland. (Tony Ganzer)

Even before Walmart’s website carried and then pulled the infamous “Rope. Tree. Journalist.” shirt, it has been clear that the relationship between some communities and journalists is…strained.

…or damaged.

…or completely broken.

Trust seems to be a fickle thing in media generally, but audiences have continued to seek refuge in ever more solidified echo chambers of ideology. It’s a normal fixture of society now to hear complaints about a monolith dubbed ‘the media,’ though that’s a vague catch-all term that doesn’t describe the nuance of today’s mediascape.

Complaints come from all quarters, even the White House.

Ink-stained reporters and editors used to be the true gatekeepers of information, able to amplify or suppress stories, scandals, and secrets simply by printing information or not.

This is obviously no longer the case, as Twitter, Facebook, CNN iReporters (remember those?), bloggers, hobbyists, pundits , company PR professionals— you name it — have all become some form of news agent. I am reluctant to use the term “journalist” to describe some of these actors, or “journalism” to describe what they do, because these terms are something special to me (a journalist.)

It is true many types of people or organizations or interest groups can report events, but are they all journalists? And do we care?

Winds of Change

Just as journalism has been facing epic transformations, and ‘fake news’ attacks, my relationship with the industry has been…strained.

…or damaged.

It is not breaking news to say a journalist is concerned about journalism — it is almost a honed skill to complain about the decline of quality in between the journalistic triumphs.

But I am ever more bruised by the realization that what I learned about journalism is compromised by market pressures, by audience trends, and even by the co-opting of news presentation for ‘fake news’ or selling something.

The tasks, duties, and truly ‘noble’ parts of journalism, are often outsourced to other professions or industries.

And we don’t even have time to worry about robots in this piece, and how problems are compounded by lay-offs.

Farming out the Labor

Evidence of ‘journalistic outsourcing’ goes beyond the idea that newsrooms rely ever more frequently on “citizen journalists” or just a string of tweets or Facebook comments to feed the eternal news cycle.

Even though using social media is a cheap way to gather anecdotal information without investing true resources to an issue, it is not my main concern.

I feel the outsourcing goes deeper, and in multiple directions.

It struck me some time ago when my Facebook feed was increasingly filled with nonsense, usually in the form of un- or wrongly-attributed quotes about something timely.

I would hope folks would question whether Morgan Freeman’s alleged political rhetoric after a shooting tragedy was legit before sharing, or check whether George Washington really made a powerful defense of gun rights.

My go-to antidote for these kinds of things, as many people, was snopes.com. While the site tackles often unimportant myths, it also has information of genuine journalistic interest, like analysis of Swiss gun culture in the wake of gun rights groups citing the country as a model. Dispelling rumors or affirming truths is a role of news organizations, and I produced my own look into Swiss gun culture.

The differences were clear at the time: Snopes cited Wikipedia, and I spoke with experts, but Snopes probably gets more web traffic than other ‘traditional’ news sites. And Snopes’ efforts are ever more robust.

The wave of “fact-checkers” is also an example of an outsourced journalistic endeavor. Many news organizations are considered to hold an institutional or ideological bias, and thus an “independent” fact-checking unit, or non-profit organization, must now rate the truthfulness of politicians or decision makers or news outlets themselves.

This used to just be, you know, just journalism, done by news organizations.

But even fact checkers can’t escape attacks for not being fair enough.

NGOs and Storytelling

One of the most interesting examples of journalists not being the only ones doing the journalism can be seen with non-governmental organizations, or UN agencies.

NGOs and UN agencies increasingly contract or staff media experts (often former journalists) to document humanitarian crises or tragic realities with photographs, podcasts, videos, or text.

And some of it is really top-notch.

Traditional reporters might get a press release about the NGO’s work, or links to multimedia presentations from the field, and s/he writes an article about that work, sometimes lifting quotes from the NGO version.

Which person is producing the most-journalistic work?

There are different types reporting, of course, from short daily updates, to deeply-reported features. But this short-cut of relying on someone else for story details is only the tip of a confusing ethical iceberg for journalists.

The New York Times photography blog looked at the issue of a certain symbiosis between reporters and NGOs in some interesting depth, and the issues extend to other media as well.

NGOs like to help journalists because they can have a hands-on opportunity to shape a story as it’s being written. Journalists like NGOs because they facilitate access, and the efforts toward a more just and humanitarian reality are often in-sync with a journalist’s turf.

But NGOs have interests, and journalists are supposed to be independent, so the relationship can only go so far before problems arise, at least for the traditional model of storytelling.

The High Road

I, as many others, have held myself to an incredibly high standard for identifying and suppressing bias in my reporting.

Some journalists like to argue no reporter is objective, because our thoughts and judgement are influenced by our experiences and education. But I believe we can exercise a prudent objectivity in the reporting and information-gathering phase of journalism.

We can make efforts to fully understand a perspective, and gather as much information as possible, before evaluating the full-picture and distilling the information into an article or feature. I don’t expect all of my sources or interview subjects to like my stories when I finish, but I do want to represent their points of view correctly and give their perspective a public hearing.

This crucial information gathering and distillation are the tasks which I probably consider most important for a journalist.

Some work of NGOs, or non-profits, or concerned citizens, is on par with work published by respected media outlets in terms of comprehensiveness and context. Other materials clearly have a motive.

But so do articles in certain newspapers, or shows on certain networks.

There are brilliant and inspiring journalists in our world. But there are big numbers of them not necessarily working for media outlets anymore.

Journalism, the craft, is not disappearing, but it’s migrating.

Maybe this does touch on the consequences of lay-offs, in an indirect way.

The Point

While generally I think we all need to work harder to find depth and context in news, quality coverage is still out there, of course.

Legacy media companies are still innovating, and finding new ways to tell stories in the digital space. And they’re also doggedly pursuing stories that matter, in brilliant fashion.

But.

The craft of journalism is no longer contained in the bottle of the newsroom. Some media outlets are so polarized and increasingly political, I find it hard to brand media work from NGOs, or non-profits, etc, as any more tainted than those from some media outlets themselves.

We as citizens need to ask ourselves if we are comfortable with the way things are going. If not, then we need to demand drastically more transparency, investment, and quality from our news outlets and information brokers.

There will always be journalism. It is up to us to decide how good and how plentiful we wish it to be, from wherever it’s coming.

Tony Ganzer is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster. He’s reported from Oslo, to Cairo, to Cleveland, with bylines for NPR, Deutsche Welle, Swissinfo, and more. Find more about him here.