Journalism’s Image Problem

You know those TV ads in which a new car buyer is swept into a room full of reporters, photographers and video cameras, and then asked a couple of softball questions, like “how much do you like your new Fusion?” In my mind, these ads parody the actual news gathering process of daily journalism, turning it into a marketing gimmick — and all with a wink-wink of the advertiser’s eye.

Exaggerate much? Well, not if you think of journalism these days as sinking fast from the nation’s consciousness. The car ads are harmless in the sense that they were not created to disparage reporters. They are about selling cars. But in their way, the ads demean professional journalism, edited to cause the casual, uncritical viewer (of which there are probably millions) to think that the surprise interview was a real event, and that the people asking the questions are real reporters. Even if viewers can see through the ad, they nevertheless are absorbing the visual context of a news conference, but in the context of shilling for a car maker they are ostensibly covering.

The ad campaign is but one of many ways in which professional journalism is being denigrated in contemporary society. It’s never enjoyed public support throughout history. But to most citizens, an active, aggressive and accurate news media serves the legitimate and necessary role of the attentive bulldog (or school marm) — a counterforce to unbridled government, pompous politicians, unscrupulous businessmen and the like. After Watergate in the mid-70’s, this watchdog role was especially valued.  Enrollment at journalism schools skyrocketed; reporters were heroes.  Now that exalted role is diminishing, in part because the upheaval in the economics of publishing and broadcasting is decimating the ranks of reporters and editors with jobs, thus reducing coverage, and in part because of the rapid rise and pervasive influence of online, digital media, where journalists are just another content provider. Less noticed is the way in which the image and reputation of traditional journalism is being trashed, with surprisingly little pushback from reporters, editors, journalism professors — and viewers and readers.

What’s driving this demise?  One theory portrays journalism as essentially irrelevant in today’s information age. Anyone with a camera phone and email can gather and report the news; no one needs training or professional experience to tweet or post a video on You Tube. Reporters today compete with online social media sites, “citizen journalists” and a global cadre of eyewitnesses who are documenting newsworthy events in real time. If there’s little editing or fact-checking of the raw information — an essential function of professional journalism — it seems to many a small price to pay for immediacy, “inside” information and gossip, and blog posts of the rich and famous.

Journalism also is under assault for another, less benign, reason. In this reckoning, journalism, with its claims of “ojectivity” and professionalism, has actually impeded “progress” by its constant criticism and incessant second-guessing of American institutions and cherished beliefs — Congress, the Presidency, Wall Street, separation of church and state, and so on. Acting out a shoot-the-messenger obsession, journalism is seen as an obstacle — a tumor on the body politic — that needs excising or at least containment. The most vocal critics argue that journalism’s civic ombudsman’s role is a self-appointed one that is no longer needed in today’s society. Their work product — news articles and broadcast segments — is scorned by critics who claim that since “objectivity” is impossible, professional news gathering and reporting is just as biased in its own way as advertising or political rhetoric and therefore in no need of either protection or a special role in society.

The belittlement of journalism is on display as the 2012 Presidential campaign gets underway. During the recent Iowa GOP Presidential caucus, evangelical ministers (hardly unbiased observers) served as supposedly impartial interviewers for Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, while mainstream reporters were kept away. Newt Gingrich’s prowess in the Presidential debates, you will recall, was based primarily on his sarcastic belittling of the questions of the reporters and moderators. None of the other candidates came to their defense. Mitt Romney’s disdain for reporters is palpable, while President Obama’s well-oiled media machine treats news professionals like cast members in a long-running political drama.

There are murmurs of discontent about all this in some journalistic quarters, but it is strangely muted.  To some degree, reporters are used to pariah status, and the criticism rolls off their back.  But things are different now; newsrooms are emptying at an alarming rate, and papers literally are shrinking, leaving even less space for extended reporting. Overseas bureaus have closed, further isolating Americans from the rest of the world, and the audiences for TV news programming, never robust, is in glide path decline. On the rise is everything the professional reporter despises:  puffoonery, bombast, reckless opinion, propoganda, spin and inaccuracy.  There’s more content available than ever before, but where it comes from, who is responsible for it, and whether it is even factual are all matters increasingly difficult to ascertain.

If there’s anything to be optimistic about, it would be the hope that journalism is subject to the same shifts in fortune as any other segment of society.  It just might be that a new generation of idealistic men and women will opt for a journalism career over law, medicine or business as a way to keep our nation on its toes. The form may change from paper to digital, but trained, dedicated news reporters will have an opportunity, especially online, for immediate, broadscale impact. The key is finding and nurturing those souls who feel they can make a difference, and in so doing be a force of good in the world.  That was the motivation for generations of reporters and editors back in the day.  They didn’t always measure up to their lofty ideals, but for those who adhered to the basic formula of  accuracy, fairness, balance, objectivity, and most of all, a regard for facts, their influence was immeasurable.  We could use more of that today, couldn’t we.

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