Sunday, March 2, 2008

Journalism, Part One

I can say without the slightest bit of melodrama that the news media is failing us, has already failed us in the past, and will continue to fail us in the future if things don’t change.

Let’s say you have a classroom of 50 students, and one of them fails. The majority of the responsibility of that failure falls on that student, since the rest of the class apparently didn’t have a problem with obtaining a passing grade. What if there were ten students failed? How about twenty-five? How about all the students? At what point is individual responsibility overshadowed by institutional responsibility? How many students would have to fail before we learn to teach differently?

The news in America is in an embarrassing state, and people are beginning to take notice. For quite some time now, those in the journalism field have been involved in a industry-wide panic over the declining sales and dwindling numbers of print media. The effects are not hard to see either, with most metropolitan areas only hosting one newspaper after a period when it was not uncommon to see at least two newspapers in even a small city. If you’re in the 18-30 demographic, ask around and see how many of your peers read a newspaper every day. The statistics are less than pleasing.

Cable television is not a worthy heir, either. 24 hours of “news” requires that a lot of space be filled, and it’s not surprising to find shows dedicated to the latest Trump/O’Donnell fracas, which minor celebrity is in rehab, or other garbage with little-to-no redeeming value. And, if it’s not pointless news, it’s slapstick political “punditry” that typically amounts to little more than an elementary school argument. “You’re wrong.” “No, you’re wrong, and furthermore, you must hate America for saying that.”

We all would like a noble, honest and unbiased source of news and information. These things are hard to come by in the media though and even harder to recognize, because our newspapers, our radio stations, our magazines and our television channels are all businesses – their responsibilities are paying the salaries of their employees while offsetting the cost of doing business and turning a profit at the end of the fiscal year. Because of this, they are dependent on advertisers, viewers, audiences and subscribers, and their priorities are shifted away from the black and white issues of the world, and move towards the black and red issues of running a business.

And we are living in a nation that is inundated with this kind of news, far too much for one person to take in, actually, when you take into the account the multitude of different forms journalism takes within the media. And each outlet within the media is striving to be different than the other, not wanting to show the same footage and report the same stories as the next guy. The result is that each media outlet copies each worthless story somebody else repeats and tries to put a new spin on it, with things like "exclusive" coverage and "behind the scenes" reporting. The real news behind all this garbage is left unaccounted for, and no new insight is being provided, and yet, the story continues to get air time and print space.

“Left” and “right” are two adjectives that can be self-worn with pride or applied to someone else with malice. It’s gotten to the point where we can’t even acknowledge a news source without labeling it. Not only is our country and its citizens divided between left and right, but so is our information. And, if there’s ever a piece of information someone disagrees with or doesn’t want to hear, it’s too easy to shrug it off as a media bias. “Oh, that can’t be true, it came from Fox News” or “Of course the NYT would say something like that.”

I believe the news is necessary, important and sacred. It’s what separates the citizens from the subjects, and it’s something that we should show pride in and constantly strive to improve. In these times, our information is the strongest, most prevalent weapon we can wield, and we – yes, all of us – are guilty of letting its blade grow dull. It is time for a change.
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