Can Reporters Fight Back?

I bumped into a newspaper reporter acquaintance this week and we spent a few moments idly discussing the uncertainties he and his newsroom colleagues face in the wake of the accelerating demise of daily print journalism.  He’s already been furloughed twice this year (an enforced absence from work without pay) and it’s likely more such weeks are in the offing.  So he is personally feeling the impact of the newspaper crisis.

Yet what struck me about our conversation was how passively accepting he seemed to be about the situation.  He was like a motorist driving by an accident scene:  slowing down to look at the wreck, and then moving on.

This detached attitude may be one of the reasons journalism — as we have known it — is in trouble.  If the professionals who gather, write and edit the news every day are not rising up in righteous anger about what’s happening in their chosen field, who will?

sandiego-newsroomMake no mistake about it: what is happening to journalism is — or should be — extremely dismaying.  It’s no exaggeration to state that a free, open and vibrant press is an essential countervailing presence in our society.  Yet we seem prepared to let newspapers disappear, leaving government and business oversight in the hands of those who would abuse power for their own ends.

These worries are overblown, many “new media” observers argue. The traditional journalistic model, they say, is fatally flawed from an economic standpoint: as more advertising migrates away from print media to online, newspapers can no longer afford the costs of keeping a stable of reporters and editors working on gathering, writing and editing news stories.  Besides, these observers add, the blogosphere has already largely replaced the role of the reporter and editor by making everyone (with a PC and internet access) a new media reporter.

The perturbing question, of course, is who will edit the content being posted?  Who will insure that facts are facts and not pure fiction?  Who will serve as the observers of our society, men and women with the professional training and experience to question the assumptions and decisions of the powerful in government and business?

These concerns are in no way diminished by the sad recognition that the news media in recent years has been largely off its game.  The unquestioned acceptance of the Bush Administration’s justification for invading Iraq is the most egregious, but by no means the only example of the media failing — miserably — to do its job.

Yet poor performance is no reason to abandon the traditional journalistic model of objective, dispassionate news gathering.  There’s a market — a strong market — for high quality reporting and writing, and the path to survival of journalism clearly must be predicated on a commitment to excellence in the gathering, reporting and analysis of news.

We’re not even going to start down that path unless professional journalists begin aggressively raising these issues.  It will require of them doing something that is contrary to their professional standards and (perhaps) their personal beliefs:  they must become advocates for the preservation of journalism.  It’s going to be hard, because j-schools and newsrooms have pounded into the minds of reporters for decades that their professional posture is to remain above the fray of current event:  reporting on what’s happening, but studiously avoiding taking sides.

That detachment will have to be abandoned, in the current environment.  The stakes are simply too high.  Reporters and editors need to get off their high horse and plunge into the discussion of the future of their profession.

It’s certainly not too late for the advocacy to begin. Professional journalists, like my passive friend, must aggresively begin defending their profession and explaining why its disintegration harms the national interest.

It’s time, in other words, to light a fire in the newsrooms of America’s daily papers.

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