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Sun, Jul 18 2004

Are You A Real Journalist?

This week The National Debate pointed to a comment from an article at USA Today online. According to that news outlet, Tom McPhail, who happens to teach journalism in my old home state of Missouri, feels that bloggers are not in the same category as journalists. Response was swift. Dan Kennedy presented his thoughts on Boston Phoenix Media Log. The comments at miss-information.net include some valid points. Old Hag let loose with a few comments under the topic "Welcome To Our Pretend Journal". Unfogged mentioned, and then corrected, a report of Doctor McPhail's comments on bloggers. Over at ryan.freebern.org the idea came up that maybe the older professor is just not keeping up with the times.

It's clear that Dr. McPhail has definite opinions and is not afraid to share them, as he showed in this article on war coverage last year. I'm sure he's a very learned man, and he certainly holds more degrees and can boast more academic accomplishments than I can. And he's in a place where he can reach the minds of many young journalists who are just starting out. Which is exactly what concerns me. Most students will work in new media that will endure long after Dr. McPhail has passed away. I don't have as many years of life experience as Dr. McPhail has, and I would never dare to define the world in which young journalists/writers will communicate their thoughts in the future.

Traditional media has usually been handled with somewhat of a top-down kind of reporting, with a newspaper or TV network able to approach news reports with much more power in terms of headlines, sources, front page stories and editorial slant. Mainstream media coverage changed slowly in the early days of print. Industrialization brought with the ability to get massive amounts of information out to people at a faster rate. Add to that the advent of radio broadcasts, telephones and movies (and things like the newsreels that ran in movie theatres during World War II, opening up a new way to mix news and entertainment). Then came television, transistor radios, cordless phones, computers, mobile phones, cell phones, digital cameras, camera cell phones and wireless computing. It just keeps getting faster and easier to communicate the news (and everything else). And this is only the technological side of the issue.

It would be next to impossible to include here all the influences that have contributed to the changing face of jounalism. Dr. McPhail has probably, in his teachings, had occasion to bring up the name of George Seldes, who chronicled much of the history of the last century, though it meant bucking McCarthyism, big business and big politicians. Seldes' methods have sometimes been unconventional and brash, and his determination to report the liberal side of things, plus his documentation of that determination, have given writers, including journalists, an ideal to hold to when pay is low and a pat on the back can rapidly be followed by a sharp stab. He's made a lot of people very angry, and he has exposed many underhanded moves that more traditional journalists would never have dared to handle in their work. Some might say he has been a pretend journalist. I believe he realized that reporting is only part of the job, and that admitting human foibles, and embracing one's own human stance, is just as important as the gathering of the "who, what, when, where, why and how".

I'm not really certain what Dr. McPhail means when he refers to those who blog as pretend journalists. If he means to say that a journalist should only be defined as someone who writes for a print newspaper or print magazine, his definition is extremely narrow, but is probably the most traditional view. It's a view that isn't quite up to speed with modern forms of media, but it does fit the traditional view.

Perhaps he means to say that only journalists who get paid to write by some third party are real journalists. If this was true, I would expect to see a few more journalists whose salary and benefits were in keeping with their real journalist status. I have been paid by the column inch method at times, so perhaps I would have qualified as a real journalist in his eyes, at that point.

If the whole thing is about remaining neutral in one's reporting, I would remind the good professor that no one is an unbiased observor. We each come to a source, an editor, an interview or a story, with a lifetime of personal experience that colors our questions, our observations and our words. The story is seen through our eyes, even when we listen to someone else tell that story and then report it.

If the professor feels that only a real journalist presents many sides to a story in order to report it in a fair manner, I would remind him that a journalist is often at the whim of the editor, who is often at the whim of the advertisers, who are often pouring money into both news media and politicians' pet projects, and that these same advertisers and politicians might be very likely to pull their support if a story is told in a manner unflattering to their particular industry or platform. And if the good professor will allow me a bit of leeway, I would say that the pressures on broadcast journalists are just as great. Sadly, the pressures would seem to be increasing.

If what Dr. McPhail intended to convey was the idea that real journalists have a code of ethics, he might have gotten a better reaction from bloggers if he had mentioned the fact that many of those real journalists have fallen far short of the mark by writing fiction and presenting it as fact, and that some blog writers are more accurate and fair than the real journalists he might hold in higher regard.

As an educator, the good professor has a chance to channel the enthusiasm and fresh voices that come to him for knowledge and background in their craft. I hope writers, including blog writers, and especially young blog writers, will take his comments, not as a threat or a limitation, but as a challenge to be the best writer/reporter/pundit/journalist they can be, whether they are writing by the column inch for a big-city newspaper, or commenting in their online journal. I would ask fellow bloggers not to be too hard on Dr. Tom McPhail. He's been working in Missouri, and I know how things can be back there. It's the Show-Me State. I would hope that all he is saying is, "Show me."

posted at: 14:11 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry



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Stealin' copy is as bad as horse-thievin'
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