The state of journalism
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – As I write this, I’m watching live reports coming in from Newtown Connecticut of yet another mass shooting. This time it took place in Sandy Hook Elementary School – a school with students from kindergarten to grade four. I will undoubtedly have something to contribute regarding the ghastly tragedy when exactly what has taken place becomes clearer; what is standing out from my perspective in the meantime, however, is a different kind of tragedy.
Journalism, which at one time was an honourable and respectable profession, has devolved to such a degree, that it is difficult for an old-school journalist like me to take much pride in it any more. Although it has been years since I was an active reporter, having moved on to opinion, editorial, and analysis, I still hold the business of disseminating the news in high esteem and see it almost as a sacred calling. And journalism has always been a business as well as a public service. From the days when news was transmitted by wandering minstrels who brought gossip from town to town on their travels to the days when town criers read out the headlines at dawn and dusk, right up until today when we can access breaking news on our cellphones, people have earned their livings reporting news. Nevertheless, to be a journalist carries real responsibility beyond just making money.
A journalist has the responsibility, first and foremost, of reporting news accurately. That is to say, a journalist, above all, must get the facts and get them right. The facts then must be presented fairly. Since journalists are human beings, it is impossible for them to be entirely objective, but fairness is within the grasp of even the most partisan journalist. Fairness is achieved by presenting all the relevant facts, not just those that support the bias of the reporter; by stating any bias that is held; and acknowledging – to the extent ethically permissible – one’s sources.
However, a journalist has a responsibility not just to the consumer of the news but to the people involved in the story itself. (As I write this, the death toll is climbing. 26 dead, 18 children and 8 adults at the scene, and a parent in a different state, are all reported dead). And like any human being, a reporter has a responsibility not to be an asshole when it can be avoided.
I watched in utter disgust as a heavily made up and coiffed twenty-something beauty queen pretending to be a field reporter buttonholed a young mother carrying one sobbing child and holding the hand of another as, escorted by a SWAT team, she ducked under the yellow police tape and headed for an ambulance. The “reporter” stuck a microphone in the stumbling and panic-stricken mother’s face; the bimbo’s incisive and sensitive question? “Would you describe this as a close-knit community? Would you say the people know each other well?” In the live feed you could make out the voice of a SWAT team member as he shoved the mic away, saying “Fuck off, you stupid bitch.” Predictably, that one sane comment was excised from all subsequent replays of the piece.
While the pros are gathering information from the hospital, the police on the scene, and other potential sources of reliable relevant information, and reporting what they know with caveats until details are confirmed by independent sources, the local news video crews are running around sticking their mics and cameras in the faces of traumatised and anxiety-ridden parents waiting for news of their children. “How do you feel?” was among the more inane and frequently asked question. One blow-dried, capped-toothed idiot strode up to a weeping and hyperventilating mother waiting to hear if her daughter was among those shot, and ponderously intoned, “Do you attribute this slaughter to the easy availability of firearms?”
News has degenerated into voyeuristic, Jerry Springer level entertainment. But there is no excuse for letting entertainers loose in the middle of an unthinkable tragedy in an effort to exploit the grief and horror of the deaths of kindergarten children. If you have the responsibility of assigning stories to news crews, by all means send your clueless beefcakes and airheaded cosmetic models out to report on mall Santas and lost kitties. But for the sake of journalists everywhere, and the people impacted by the events, leave reporting on serious tragedies or any real news to people of intelligence and professionalism.
I am sickened and ashamed of the halfwits who call themselves journalists as though they are on the same level as professionals who have learned their trade and paid their dues. Meanwhile those genuine journalists are doing their jobs. The facts are coming in.
More on the shootings when the facts are clearer.