When journalism was serious

I’ve been quite outspoken in my criticism of television journalists, and it has finally occurred to me that instead of launching barbs at specific individuals or outlets, I should attempt to spell out the unwritten rules my targets are violating.

My judgments are grounded in an aging (1965) BA in Journalism, followed by a lot of years in publishing and printing. Sure, it’s easy to sit in my ivory tower and throw stones now that I’m retired. But back in the day I learned certain ethics and rules about reporting that seem to have disappeared. Old lady, old ideas, I suppose.

I learned that a complete, basic news story should include the 5 W’s and the H — who, what, when, where, why, and how. Just the facts, ma’am. It was a mental checklist. Make sure these details are included, in the first paragraph if possible. The rest of the story consists of elaborating on and filling out these details, with the information added in descending order of importance. The “inverted pyramid” style. If the story must be edited for length, the editor starts chopping at the end and works up.

What the reporter is not supposed to do is interject personal feelings or opinions, whether through overt comment, on-camera expression, or more subtly through, say, the choice of less-than-neutral words. This is a huge challenge. It’s hard to be completely objective and keep your personal beliefs and attitudes from slipping into your reporting. It’s hard to stay neutral without being sterile. It may even be impossible … but the best reporters will try mightily.

I really shouldn’t single out the reporters when there’s so much blame to go around. Opinion will, of necessity, be interjected when an editor or producer, limited by space or time, chooses which stories the public will see and which will get spiked. Nor do stories rise or fall on merit alone, not when every news outlet in the world is a competitive, profit-making organization. Welcome to the sausage factory, folks.

Journalists today allow themselves more than just a cold recitation of the facts. They want their pieces to be warmer, more human, more interesting. They’ve begun thinking it’s part of their job to help readers interpret the facts. Thank you, but no. That might be your job if you’re writing features or human interest. But don’t blur the line between those genres and hard news.

If a writer or news outlet wants to opine or speculate or hypothesize or accuse, fine. Who better than those who gather the facts? But — and here’s where our news sources are failing  — this endeavor must, absolutely must be completely separate from anything called news; it must be clearly labeled as editorial or commentary or opinion.

Too much of what passes for news on the 24-hour “news” channels is personal commentary rarely labeled as such. Online and print news sources are guilty too, but I think they are more careful because it’s easier to revisit and reexamine their words.

I mourn the passing of the profession I used to know. It was an honorable thing, a sacred trust … back in the day.

2 thoughts on “When journalism was serious

  1. Interesting post. I work for a radio station and I’m a “news anchor” of sorts. Basically we pull our news from the local paper/website. The station has an agreement with the paper that we get to report their news as long as we give them a plug. We have to get the story down to a paragraph or a couple of sentences. We generally want to fit a few news stories, plus weather, tags, plugs, and a station ID into two short minutes.

    That said, I totally understand how you could be frustrated with print media. Most people don’t know it but they could get the basic facts of a story in about 5 to 10 sentences. It seems that reporters tend to want to fill, fill, fill, and then fill some more. That makes my job very difficult!
    If those reporters had set up their stories correctly, you could drop all but the first 5 or 10 sentences — without even reading the material — and have a decent story. But they never do, do they?

    I had deadlines and space constraints, but I never had to cope with two-minute time slots or worry about dead air. Doubt I could have handled the pressure in broadcasting. Cheers.

... and that's my two cents