Journalist: one who journals

A reporter reports. An editor edits. A journalist . . . journals? Defining what journalists actually do isn’t nearly that easy. Not only that, articulating how it differs from, say, reporters and editors, is a little more difficult than one might expect. The biggest trait I’ve noticed in defining journalism against everything else is the integrity of the story, including the motivation behind writing and the style of writing.

Journalists, as called by a higher power, might ideally be in the mood to pull a Woodward every now and again. On a daily basis, they might dream of living up to their watchdog duties by catching the hidden, dirty stories that others try to hide. Falling short of this ideal doesn’t necessarily discount one from being a journalist, but not trying to achieve this ideal leads to that ostracism. When one’s motivation for presenting a story to the public shifts from being informative to spreading celebrity, propaganda, or personal opinion, that person loses the right to call him- or herself a journalist. Former Indian President Kalam, in explaining the role journalism and media played in his country, stated that “true journalism . . . did not have room for sensationalism.” If the motivation behind presenting a story is to rile people up, like yellow journalism, or promote an ulterior agenda, it is not true journalism.

The second major facet setting journalism off from other professions is the style in which one writes. One blogger, dedicated to journalism, made a 20-point checklist for defining a journalist. #15, as recommended by readers of this blog, is that you know you’re a journalist if “you analyze city council meetings the way sportscasters break down Monday night football.” How does a sportscaster make Monday night football breakdowns interesting? They not only relay information, but they relay it in a clear and interesting way. Journalists differ from reporters greatly in this respect. Reporters, I feel, merely report—if a story uses a lot of technical terms that the general public won’t know, a reporter doesn’t necessarily have to change them. A good journalist, however, strives to make news accessible to the public, thus journalists relay factual information in a way that doesn’t condescend to, but makes information accessible for the public.

Sportscasters will also break down Monday night football in an enthusiastic and storytelling-esque way. Good journalists will also be able to present information and stories in such a fashion which in turn makes the audience more intrigued about the news. In this video, Brogan demonstrates good journalism. He presents facts, but he integrates his own style and storytelling into the report.

Journal (verb): to communicate information, sometimes technical or inaccessible by the public, in an enthusiastic way without hidden agendas for the good of the citizenry. Good journaling will often include an appealing storytelling aspect.

Journalist (noun): one who journals.

Carli Hanson

Posted in Journalism | Leave a comment

All Roads Lead to . . . Woodward?

All roads lead to Rome, and all journalistic trends lead to Watergate . . . or from Watergate. Russ Smith was recently asked how celebrity journalism became such a rampant journalistic disease, and he responded, “Watergate . . . changed this country’s daily papers’ newsrooms inalterably, for better or worse depending upon your perspective.” It seems that after Woodward and Bernstein fulfilled the “higher calling” of journalism to its most shining glory, journalism became popular—or perhaps it was the fame  from cracking open a scandal that became popular, not journalism itself.

The first line of an article about celebrity journalism starts: “Two journalists were playing golf.” It sounds like the beginning of a joke, and the story continues to reveal that it is, in part, a joke. One journalist, Tony Kornheiser, spent significant time on televised newscast. Many people approached him during the golf game to chat a little with him. Ironically enough, the other journalist, Woodward (surprise, surprise), received zero recognition during the entire golf game. How could one of the most famous reporters who covered one of the most famous reports not be recognized while a local television newscaster receives a plethora of recognition? That’s easy: the medium of reporting. Newspaper reporters enjoy the anonymity that comes with paper news whereas television reporters enjoy the fame that comes with visual media broadcast.

Woodward himself, though, calls celebrity journalism a “curse,” even though it’s his story that seemed to initiate this trend. The difference between celebrity journalism and what Woodward did is evidenced by the golf game. Woodward remains somewhat anonymous (by physical recognition) even when his story was one of the biggest ever. And that’s the thing: his story was one of the biggest ever. There seems to have been an evolution that took place during the introduction and popularization of television news broadcasts. This was the infotainment revolution. When people began to expect news coverage to entertain them (infotainment), those delivering the news had to also be attractive and celebrity-like just as a performer delivering entertainment would have to be attractive. Because of the emphasis placed on appearance in the news reporters, the news was prioritized as second place. That is when journalist celebrity becomes a menace, I think. When the celebrity trumps the journalist is when the “curse” is in full effect.

Carli Hanson

Posted in Journalism, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Infotainment: Journalism Debased

I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon where newscasters turn into pet dogs looking to their masters, the viewers, for cues on what to do in order to get a treat, or a viewer’s attention. The public, constantly surrounded by things trying to entertain them, desires to be entertained even by the news. In an attempt to get the “treat,” journalist-newscasters have (been) degraded  to the point of supplying more entertainment than information. Edward R. Murrow feared this digression of television and news in the ’50’s. He explained, “During the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live.” As journalists, I feel that it’s our job to connect the public to the world, not insulate them from it. But I would agree with Murrow that infotainment (emphasis on the tainment) insulates people from the real world.

Infotainment is oddly similar to the word infomercial, and we all know how dreadful those can be. Whose Line is it Anyway parodies infomercials in one of their games, and in one particular segment, Colin says something rather poignant (3:15): “You know, these commercials are not only informative, but they’re entertaining.” I thought this said a lot about infotainment as well. Infotainment (again, emphasis on the tainment) takes great pains to be entertaining, and in the process it loses valuable information (just like Colin’s infomercial lost focus on the product when he tried to introduce the random “entertainment”). Overall, I feel infotainment is a negative method of reporting news.

While reading up on infotainment, I realized that there’s another way to look at that word. Instead of information presented in an entertaining way, it could (and does) also apply to information on entertainment and entertainers. We talked in class about Survivor participants being highlighted on “news” shows, and Pulitzer-nominated columnist Jonah Goldberg submitted evidence supporting the idea that infotainment in this fashion has gone too far. He reported on  CNN’s decision to seriously address a few SNL skits (which purposefully make things up) with the sole purpose of telling viewers that SNL’s “land shark” was fabricated, and that their skit on “President Obama’s” speech was indeed another counterfeit. Goldberg wonders why CNN would bother to report on these findings so obvious to viewers. I wonder how the public could have gotten so numb that CNN would be prompted to address these skits. SNL is meant to entertain; CNN’s report on that entertainment is a perfect illustration of the television insulating the public from the real world.

Infotainment, I feel, is a sad development in journalism. I’m not opposed to presenting information in an interesting way, but to present it in an entertaining way is inappropriate for any respectable journalist.

Carli Hanson

Posted in Journalism, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Difficulty of Religion in Journalism

Why reporting on religion is one of the hardest topics to journal-ize about, I believe, is because religion transcends national boundaries, and people know their own religion (most of the time). So if a reporter says something wrong or a little bit offensive, there will be more people who know about what that reporter said and the negative ramifications domino after that.

I think Mike Wallace did an excellent job of reporting on religion when he interviewed President Gordon B. Hinckley. In fact, this video clip I found was really interesting because of the way it went about “investigating” the Church. The thing I found most intriguing however, is that (as Wikipedia reports) Mike Wallace is Jewish. How does he effectively stay out of the religion argument himself? He doesn’t mention his own religion, number one. Number two, he asks honest questions to the people who are actively participating in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Third, he accepts their answers and moves on; he doesn’t stop to interrogate them or try to prove them wrong. That’s what makes reporting on religion effective and news-worthy.

Another difficulty with reporting on religion is defining religion. In a BBC article on the census and people who reported their religion, “academic Eric Kaufmann [said] there are three dimensions of piety: affiliation, belief and attendance.” To define a person as being Christian could vary from person to person. C.S. Lewis brings this debate up in Mere Christianity. There are some who live their lives according to “Christian” morals as outlined by Jesus Christ, but who don’t necessarily believe in Jesus Christ. Are they Christian? Are those who do believe in Jesus Christ, but don’t necessarily live by “Christian” morals considered Christian? Although I do understand that Christianity itself isn’t a specific religion, the same concept applies to particular faiths, too. Reporting on religion, then, is difficult because of the number of ways one can offend people.

Journalist William Lobdell published a book on how he lost his religion by reporting on it for the Los Angeles Times. He felt like religion reporters weren’t doing a very good job, so he desired to be a part of that reporting. After he uncovered a story of child molestation involving a Catholic priest, he doubted more than he believed in religion. But he had to report the story. It was fact. This brings up another hard aspect of religious reporting: uncovering a truth that will embarrass or upset people’s belief systems which are valuable to the individual.

If I were a journalist given a chance to report on a religious story versus a different story, I might light away from the religious story just because I don’t trust myself right now to be completely unbiased, and I recognize that I don’t know all that much about many religions. This could potentially lead to a lot of negative feedback. I respect, therefore, the journalists who are able to effectively report on religion, or who can mention religion without bias. It’s a hard thing to do.

Carli Hanson

Aside | Posted on by | Leave a comment

The Self-Checking Public Forum

In high school, I debated in an event called Public Forum (PF). This event was the best for the lay-judges to attend because the style of debate was intended to be presentable to a public audience in a comprehensible way. In contrast, a different event (labeled Policy debate) often devolves into something less than language at times. This is why I prefer public forum. It’s accessible to the public, which is a much more effective and useful form of communication (and journalism) than “policy” style—using technical terms far above the public jargon, and “speaking faster” than the public mind can keep up with.

There are some dangers that accompany a public forum, however. One of my biggest worries (coinciding with a worry and quality of argument culture as discussed in class) is the devaluation of expertise/the lack of fact checking. When a topic is submitted to the public forum, the public seems to have a strong tendency to make unfounded commentary which perpetuates into an undesirable “journalism,” or spreading of information.

I ran into a blog post about how a Wikipedia contributor was an expert in his field, and he wrote some in depth but factual information on his field of expertise. This information was later “stripped” for a less technical and more general explanation of  the transformation problem in economics. I feel that, in this case, the public forum of Wikipedia had a negative effect on the dispersal of information. Wikipedia is intended to be a web encyclopedia. Encyclopedias, to my knowledge, contain both broad and in-depth information on a topic. If the public forum were to have improved the article, I feel that adding a general explanation to the technical one would have been most appropriate and most appreciated. That way, those seeking technical information would find it, and those looking for overviews would also find what they were looking for. Even now, I am depending on this blogger’s opinion and “expertise” in this matter, because to me, the articles have much of the same technical information and equations. And perhaps they do now, since this blogger’s article was posted nearly six years ago. If the article information has indeed be rectified, then this is an example of how the public forum positively checks itself through the medium of many users.

Another facet of the problem with the lack of fact checking is what the original information turns into. Consider the game telephone in the worst case scenario. The purpose of journalism, if it undergoes a public forum like this worst-case telephone game, will never be achieved. This reminds me of a friend’s video response to “like a boss” jokes. He found that people were using the words “like a boss” in completely inappropriate (syntactically, not morally) ways. This devolution of the words “like a boss” is like the devolution of information in a public forum, or like the devolution of a word/phrase in the game telephone. And yet, the public continues to make “like a boss” jokes without any thought as to what “like a boss” actually means. But even the evidence of this video shows how the public will again check itself because the public is made up of individual thinkers.

Overall, I’m a fan of public forums. There is a time and place for “policy” and technical journalism, but I feel that because journalism is like a mediator and is very much a conduit between the public and other entities, a public forum is an adequate arena for journalism. 

Carli Hanson

Posted in Journalism, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Breaking the Silence

The most frightening part of this presentation was the spiral of silence theory in connection to the opening activity (with the Rolo/Cadbury egg bowling). Even though everyone recognized the activity was unfair, no one spoke against it because each person was either a) proud of him- or herself for figuring out how the activity tied in with the chapter, or b) too afraid to speak out against those in charge. In actual public opinion, I’m afraid this happens far too often.

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, the creator of this theory, was involved in Nazi Germany as a public opinion specialist. One biographical account of Noelle-Neumann states that this theory was inspired by and used to “indirectly explain the Jews’ status during World War II under Nazi’s control.” This reminded me of the video “Lil’ Hitler,” and how the teacher, who tells the student Hitler that everyone gets one of the same-sized desk, is representing something of a moral conscience. Everyone agreed with the teacher, I’m sure, that fairness dictated everyone get one of the same-sized desk, but because some might havethought they were a minority (or not strong enough in comparison to a more powerful force—a minority of strength?), Hitler took all of the desks in the classroom except two: the U.S.’s (who was larger than Hitler), and the teacher’s. The spiral of silence is a dangerous thing.

This theory also reminded me of the book Black Like Me, where white Southerner John Howard Griffin made himself into a black man and crossed world boundaries, it seemed. In a movie representation of this book (If you watch the video, I suggest starting at 2:15), the spiral of silence was passively broken as one black man didn’t respond to boy and told the bus driver exactly why he didn’t respond. This, accompanied by a woman’s upraised voice, led to the Griffin character exiting the bus in spite of the bus driver’s “authority.” The spiral of silence was happily avoided—not broken because it seemed to be a more passive response to the “authority”—but I know that this wasn’t the case in most situations.

Although these two examples are thoroughly outdated in regards to current events, they are examples of history which I fear repeat today. The spiral of silence, I believe, is a real way of thinking. It’s a dangerous way of thinking. In journalism, it’s important to have the courage to be a part of breaking that cycle just like Griffin was a part of breaking the spiral he was a part of. Journalists are key elements in the breaking of this spiral, and as such, they must be particularly attentive to situations which begin to follow that path. I dare say that it is a journalist’s ethical duty to stop the spiral when he or she sees it because it’s that morally important.

Carli Hanson

Posted in Journalism, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Watchdogs and Squirrel Chasers

To be honest, I couldn’t help but stare at the “Beware of watchdog” shirts. As we were discussing exactly what it meant to be a watchdog journalist, I was thinking of how afraid I’d be of a dog (as pictured on the shirt) was coming after me. Then making the comparison of that dog to journalists, I realized that the watchdog would only go after the people who were trespassing on public trust. That’s when people should be afraid of the journalists.

Unfortunately, like some dogs, journalists seem to be distracted by the most insignificant things which not only forces them to lose sight of the real trespassers, but it also wastes the audience’s time with stories as insignificant as chasing squirrels. For example, while a non-profit company misappropriated over $800,000, the main-stream news coverage focused on Rush Limbaugh’s drug problem. Cox and Forkum made a wonderful editorial cartoon depicting the phenomenon which simultaneously gives these journalists a bad name (Aug. 4, 2005). It’s a wasted practice of watchdog journalism if you ask me.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel won the second annual Innovator of the Year award for its work in improving its watchdog journalism. In a video interview, one of the editors explained the process which eventually led to the award, and one of the questions they asked themselves was, “how do we be more relevant than anybody else?” That’s an important part of watchdog journalism, I think. Because this particular duty of journalists is to protect the public, reporters have to get to the stories that are most relevant to the public. Do celebrities fulfill this pertinence? Not on your life. But sometimes that’s easier to watch than one corruption story after another. Even so, I applaud the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for their interest in watchdog journalism. Interestingly, another editor in the same video interview expounded on the relevancy comment by listing off topics like local government, law and order, and other local happenings. Remember how the Pulitzer Prize category for Investigative Journalism used to be Local Journalism? Perhaps they’re more connected than I first thought.

Sri Lankan native Nalaka Gunawardene presented at a National Conference on Media Self-Regulation and he published his slide show (how nice of him). On slide 4/32 (for 7 September 2011), he has pictured a different Cox and Forkum comic depicting the role of bloggers in the realm of media and journalism. The strange divide between mainstream media and bloggers makes me question whether or not watchdog journalism is totally in one camp or the other. The bloggers picket, but it seems like picketing and watchdog-ery are not quite the same thing. Although picketing is a step closer to watchdog journalism than chit chat about the stupid and famous, I don’t feel like they give watchdog journalism the respect it deserves (like the Watergate reporters). But neither do I trust those business media men on the wall—their high position and seemingly apathetic attitude towards the protesting bloggers makes me question the real goings on behind the castle wall.

For me, the most vital medium for watchdog journalism isn’t blogging or television reporting. It’s old-fashioned newspaper (and few magazine titles) copies that retain the air of watchdog journalism. Perhaps that’s merely a stereotype, but television is for entertainment, and blogging seems to be more for people who don’t have the patience to write in journals. Not to say that television or blogging can’t have some watchdog journalism, but it seems to me that the most terrifying face of a watchdog, like the ones printed on the shirts, would be printed black and bold on a newspaper cover, not flashing on a t.v. or computer screen.

Carli Hanson

Posted in Journalism, Uncategorized | Leave a comment