Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Why Some Journalists Do What They Do
Or, why the blogosphere seems to be better at digging for facts

Glenn Reynolds collects a bunch of information on Senator Tom Harkin's fake Vietnam stories, and several readers wonder what has gone wrong with journalists/journalism. One writes to Glenn: "Newspaper reporters used to know this - and they used to look for those facts. They used to check sources. They used to search for the truth in a way that would make any skeptic proud. But now they just read the press releases and change a word here or there."

I thought that maybe I could give a bit of an explanation that wasn't quite as simple as 'they are all in the tank for John Kerry' (which is probably 65% true, but doesn't explain everything).
Readers of this blog will remember that I have a journalism degree from (M.A., Stanford, 1991) that I don't use (I don't regret the time spent at The Farm, because I met my wife there, but I've never been a full-time, paid journalist).

Based on my experience at J-school, I can generalize a couple things about journalists around my age that could explain some of the problems. First, nearly all of us were in J-school not because we wanted to be reporters, but because we wanted to write. Most of us who were together at Stanford have also either gotten out of journalism or never really got in, probably because we didn't really like reporting very much. I personally hated it, and I was lucky that I learned this so soon and didn't waste a big chunk of my life trying to be a reporter.

I think a lot of reporters feel the same way, which is why they all want to become columnists. Writing is fun and gratifying. Reporting is a lot of drudgery and leg-work. Thus reporters are ripe for the temptation of press-releases: and most press-release-writing flacks are people with journalism degrees who know exactly how to write a release so that the reporter can edit out obvious promotion but still buy the overall spin.

Second, almost all of the J-school program at Stanford was spent trying to get us to think about the implications of journalism, the politics of reporting, the influence of journalists, etc. Stanford is on tri-mesters, and you take three or four courses per trimester in grad school. We had a total of 3 mandatory classes that were on reporting. Two of these, taught by two-time Pullitzer winner James Risser and then city-editor of the San Jose Mercury News, Jerry Lanson, were brilliant. The other wasn't. But the great majority of the classes we all took were about Journalism and Law, Journalism and Politics, etc. (It almost goes without saying that these classes slanted very left-liberal. And it wasn't just professors indoctrinating us: we all wanted to be crusading, Woodward and Bernstein reporters, bringing down the powerful and helping the little guy. I don't think this is automatically a bad thing, by the way)

But when you focus all your attention on the implications, you're likely to spend more time and intellectual energy trying to control those implications (via spin, etc.) than you do in unearthing the details behind the story. And when your training is in recognizing political implications rather than in leg-work, sourcing and background, you're less able to automatically do what good, non-J-school, cynical, old-school reporters used to do.

When you factor in these two things--reporters would rather write than report, and those who have gone to J-school are more likely to have spent their time thinking about 'implications' rather than actually reporting--you see how avoiding research and fact-checking is the path of least resistance. And journalist are, contra some people's beliefs, very overworked and very underpaid. Really (I had a job offer, which would have required me to live in downtown Atlanta and work 50-60 hour weeks, that paid $14,000 per year. I made more money managing a pet store in Columbia, MO).

I think this is a long-term big problem for Journalism, the profession. It has been eating its seed corn for a decade or more, and so much of its cultural authority is used up. This can be good, in that it reduces the influence of unaccountable institutions, like the big daily papers. But it's also bad, because once everyone stops believing the newspapers, you have a huge problem of vetting and evaluating information. I really hope that up-and-coming reporters, and J-schools, realize that they also have a huge opportunity: if there were a media outlet that really did hard-core research and fought to avoid bias and 'spin' (as impossible as it is to be completely unbiased), it would overcome many of its competitors: there is a real thirst for true information about a huge variety of topics [future post on this]. 'Spinning', even when done with the best of intentions (which I think is often the case), just further weakens a really important democratic institution.

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