I remember clearly the day my Reporting 102 class provided my hour of grand disillusionment. Some details of the session — such as the name and job title of the day’s guest speaker — have faded. However, the sense of uneasiness about the business into which I was to fling myself lingers fresh.
Three distressing things happened on the same day in that class. I will list them in ascending order of concern:
• After a session led by some journalism dignitary I cannot recall, I was accosted in the hallway by a classmate who upbraided me for countering an assertion she made during the day’s discussion. She didn’t argue my point, mind you; she complained that I hurt her feelings (though I launched no personal attack) and that I should recognize that our viewpoints are equally valid.
Silly me — I thought the college classroom was a place where ideas were proffered, challenged and esteemed according to merit.
• Among the topics discussed that day was the furor over Salman Rushdie’s book, “The Satanic Verses,” the release of which prompted Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a death warrant that sent the author into hiding. The guest posed this question: Should journalists writing about this turn of events feel compelled to read Rushdie’s book?
The classmate who later accosted me argued it was not necessary, that the real story was the reaction to the book, regardless of its contents. I disagreed and said so: The reaction might indeed be the story, but sources will make assertions about the book’s content that might or might not be accurate. Sure, a reporter could write a single, credible piece about the book without having read it, but anyone striving to impart deeper meaning would need more than a dust-jacket understanding of “The Satanic Verses.”
• No one argued me down, but none of my classmates took up the banner, either. (Neither did the guest; I can’t recall if the professor was in the room at that point.) That tepid reception became less surprising as the discussion wore on, and the guest and majority of students decided objectivity is a dead concept best replaced by “fairness,” “balance” and multiple “viewpoints.”
In my mind, this is one small step from: "Frame a story however you like, so long as you include a sampling of opposing sources to cover your butt.” Couple that approach with the likes of Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair and a handful of others who not only take great license in narrating their “journalism” but make up convenient sources to boot. Suddenly, it is easy to understand the contempt with which the public seems to hold journalists. We’ve been commentating instead of informing.
Today, the chickens are coming home to roost. Yes, the challenges from electronic media and the inventive news cycle and business model they demand would have altered the landscape for traditional journalism, whatever the case. But since so many of the challengers availing themselves of cyberspace are not journalists in the conventional sense, I think it reasonable to wonder if the space they occupy is the credibility gap we created for ourselves.
That gap opened as objectivity — the principal that imparted professionalism to the craft — began to be rejected, in both classrooms and newsrooms, on the grounds it is impossible for subjective human beings to achieve. (By this logic, we should abandon the Ten Commandments as standards to live by since none of us is without sin.) Happily relieved of their obligation to approach stories with disinterest, journalists could indulge their own opinions and impart a world view, however subtly, along with the facts. The problem with this approach is that besides being off-puttingly elitist, it is downright dangerous when employed by those such as my tender classmate who care not to separate the sizzle from the steak.
I do believe the profession is redeemable, but only by re-dedication to an ethic that will distinguish us from the torrent of information hitting us all from so many directions. Bill Kovach, former curator of the Neiman Foundation’s journalism fellowships at Harvard and chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, frames this as journalism’s struggle not to be obliterated by the larger world of communications. It’s an important struggle, inasmuch as the Internet and other electronic media tend to be echo chambers in which “gossip and shouted assertion — commercial self-interest and political spin — shoulder aside verification,” Kovach said in a speech to students at the University of California, Riverside. Such a system is toxic to civic health, he asserts.
Have blogs, Facebook, Twitter and 24-hour news cycles rendered Kovach’s thoughts obsolete, just eight years later?
I would argue that to the contrary, the need for an unbiased arbiter to de-clutter and substantiate the flow of mere information is greater than ever. At this point, though, journalists must convince its constituency there is value to this service and that they can be trusted to do it.
My classroom experience more than two decades ago suggests it would help if we convinced ourselves of that first.