There has been a lot of criticism leveled recently at journalists and the craft they practice–and in some cases, rightly so.
However, a lot of that criticism is coming from academia and professors who tell students that they need to go “beyond reporting the news”–code for what they think news organizations should not keep doing: traditional news stories with traditional structure and content.
They like to refer to that kind of journalism–the kind that I and thousands of my contemporaries practiced, as “old journalism”–as if somehow journalism today has shifted into a higher gear and the fundamentals we all learned are simply passé.
For example, they talk disparagingly about conventional newspaper journalism: “stories that package painstakingly gathered facts on current events — what happened, who said what, when — have lost much of their value. Journalists must “stop romanticizing the mere gathering and organization of facts.”
New Journalism has advanced beyond the old Who, What, When, Where, Why and How era into this new realm that values subjective interpretation and analysis, they insist. Where I diverge from these critics is in the way that analysis and interpretation has been allowed to seep into what should be thoughtful, balanced reporting that allows the reader or viewer to form opinions without having them jammed down his or her throat.
Recently one journalism professor at New York University wrote that “the extra value our quality news organizations can and must regularly add is analysis: thoughtful, incisive attempts to divine the significance of events — insights, not just information; wisdom, not just facts.” I have no argument with this.
But thoughtful and incisive aren’t enough, he added. Insights must be speedy as well.
“Being fast with the analysis is as important today as being fast with the news has been for the last hundred years,” he said.
In theory, that may sound plausible. But the problem is that fast and thoughtful seldom go together. Fast and wise is even more improbable.
I speak here as someone who has worked in both worlds–some 27 years with the Chicago Tribune, mostly as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Latin America (and as a national and metro editor) AND as a professor and Dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois for 13 years. The classes I taught were heavy in fundamentals.
We talked about careful sourcing of stories, of fairness, of keeping biases out of what is produced. We talked about not rushing to judgment, of making sure that you got as many of the facts as you could and that no matter how complete a big story may seem to be on the first day, it will become more complete with time and more reporting.
Stories that are not carefully sourced or that are too subjective are highly unlikely to contribute wisdom, especially in the first hours of a big breaking news event. What they are far more likely to be is wrong or misleading. Rather than adding value for the reader, trying to write analytically before enough facts are in will usually result in the kind of shoddy, careless journalism that journalists are often criticized for producing today.
I am aware that those who taught in our Media Studies program focused more on the perception of news rather than the old-fashioned donkey work required to gather it with speed and accuracy. They came up with books that lambasted journalism and journalists for failing to generate national conversations about issues, when in fact, that is exactly what good, incisive reporting does. As someone once said: “A good newspaper is, I suppose, a nation talking to itself.”
For folks who think in terms of semesters and six year tenure clocks the idea of being first with a story is a quaint image that belongs in an old movie like “Deadline USA” or “The Front Page.” Most have never worked in a professional newsroom with its attendant pressures of deadlines, accuracy and skilled writing. Or if they have, it may have been for a year or two until they decided this kind of work was “not suited” to their more cerebral, languorous brains.
I bit my tongue more than once during my time in academia because, just as a soldier can never explain what it is like to be in combat to someone who has never experienced it, I found it impossible to impart to academics the rush and sense of satisfaction a reporter feels when he or she is first with a breaking or exclusive story.
It isn’t just the fact that the reporter was first with the story, there is also the aftermath of the story–that it will possibly have a positive impact on people’s lives, or that it will right some wrong, or that in some other way it will make a difference because the reporter was there to witness and report.