Why Journalism Matters

22 April 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo credit: warleyross/stock.xchng

I can explain why journalism matters in two words: human nature.

It’s human nature to be curious about the world around us. We want to know about people, places and events that affect our lives. Hell, we often want to know about things that have nothing to do with us. Humans are insatiable consumers of information.

But we’re also unreliable sources of information. When I tell you a story about myself, it’s human nature for me to portray myself in the best possible light.

So what?

Getting our facts straight is important. Separating facts from half-truths (and half-truths from lies) is not a luxury, but a necessity, as we attempt to navigate the world on a daily basis.

This has been a tricky business since the first human ancestor learned to lie, and it’s only gotten trickier. We are no longer lied to or misled only by people we know. Technology gives us the opportunity to be misled by people all over the world. Public figures of all stripes – from politicians to bankers to soda companies – are constantly trying to win us over to their point of view. They want us to buy their products, vote for the candidate or avail ourselves of their services.

Some of them are acting in good faith, and some are not, but we shouldn’t take any of them at face value. Even if they are trying to be evenhanded, it’s human nature to cast yourself in the best possible light (a point I made already and am repeating for emphasis). And that is where journalism* comes in.

Journalism is NOT the simple act of passing along information. It is more than the regurgitation of facts. Journalism should offer the reader a service. It should not only share information, but place that information in context. Does the information come from a trustworthy source? Could it be verified by other sources? Why is it important? Who says it is important? Who is it important to? Why are you telling me about this now? How did this happen? What might happen next?

Journalism should answer our questions. It should answer questions we haven’t even thought of yet. Because journalists should be skeptical critical thinkers, putting facts through the mental wringer before passing them on to their readers/viewers/listeners. They should help us sort the facts from the half-truths and the lies. They should help us figure out the angles that people or organizations are playing when they give us information.

Why am I talking about this now?

The premium on breaking news certainly pre-dates the 24-hour news cycle. But that premium – the value of being the first to report a piece of news – has skyrocketed over the past 30 years with the advent of cable and online news.

Recent events in Boston highlighted the pitfalls of news sources that prize getting it first over getting it right. And it was as true for “alternative” online news sources as it was for mainstream ones.

The media aftermath of the Boston bombing is simply the most recent high-profile reminder that news outlets need to focus on getting it right. Period. Make sure the story is right – then push it out. And, to be sure, there are media outlets that nailed it. I’m glad the Globe and the NY Times did a good job. But shouldn’t we expect them to do a good job? They’re being praised, and that’s fine, but it’s somewhat saddening that people are this excited by the fact that some news outlets are engaging in responsible journalism.

The second reason I’m writing about this is less timely, but it’s been stewing in my mind for a while now. I’ve been to several conferences in recent years where I’ve heard this question asked: do we need reporters any more? The insinuation being that public information officers (PIOs) can simply create good content and put it online themselves. I’m a PIO and I think that’s an awful idea.

What would stop people or institutions from exaggerating their reports? Heck, what would stop them from telling bold-faced lies? We need journalism, people.

It boils down to this: most of us who are reading this live under a form of representative government. We, the citizens, cast votes for political representatives who, in turn, are responsible for making decisions on our behalf. In order for this system to work, citizens need to be informed about the world we live in and about the decisions our respective governments have made to this point. Without good journalism, we would be informed about neither – and may instead be misinformed about either (or both).

I’m not the first person to say any of these things, but I thought I’d add my voice to the chorus. Good journalism matters, and the more people who understand that, the better off we’ll be.

* I use the term “journalism” rather than “reporters,” because the line has gotten blurry in recent years. There are “bloggers” who produce thoughtful, well-researched pieces citing multiple sources. And there are “reporters” who churn out modestly revamped news releases, or cast critical thinking out the window in pursuit of a false balance that bears little resemblance to reality. If someone is doing their homework, talking to multiple sources and attempting to bring some impartial critical thinking to bear on their work, I’ll call it journalism – even if it’s on a blog that’s not affiliated with a news outlet. If you’re not doing those things, let’s not call it journalism, even if it is on a news site.

Note: Yes, I am aware of the absurdity inherent in saying I can explain journalism's importance in two words – and then talking about it for another 900.


3 Responses to “Why Journalism Matters”

  1. Lee J Rickard Reply | Permalink

    And yet, not only is much of what is called journalism now actually the simple regurgitation of statements, usually provided by PR people, but when these "journalists" fail by the standards of the profession, there is NO accountability. (Nor is there any shame, but that's a different problem.)

    I suggest referring to all these folks as "stenographers" until proven otherwise.

  2. W Smith Reply | Permalink

    Hey Matt, Where have you been? Journalism has been effected by the entertainment virus starting in the 1980s. In the 1990s journalism was infected by political correctness. Now the MSM is merely a Government/State bullhorn. You jump on the criticism bandwagon now that journalism has devolved into Tweets. You're as useless as the rest of the pundits who scream fire after the theater has burned down.

  3. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    I'm sorry you feel that way. In many ways, I think this is a great time for journalism. There are a lot of excellent reporters making excellent content available. Business models are in a state of flux for the news industry, which is a little scary, but the actual creation of quality news stories is looking pretty good. The coverage of *breaking* news seems to be where things fall apart.

    In part, I think, this stems from the traditional news business model -- which is not doing well. Many news outlets have made significant cutbacks to their newsroom staffs, and it's more difficult to cover breaking news well when you're short-staffed. But sloppy coverage of breaking news also stems from a perceived need among cable news outlets (and others) to provide non-stop coverage, even when there is nothing new to report. That's not necessarily a new problem (CNN has been around for a few decades now), but I don't think we should ignore a problem simply because it is a long-standing one.

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