Digital news: journalist basics haven’t changed

A Knight Foundation criticism

“If you no longer let the community hear all its significant voices, you begin to have a singular, narrow, point of view of the problems of society, of the solutions of society, and you become, sooner or later, overwhelmed by a society that you don’t understand.” — Ben Bagdikian

One of the original fathers of media criticism, Ben Bagdikian, is dead. Maybe my personal article curating methodology needs some work, but I just read about this tragedy yesterday. He was an inspiration and it’s no secret that I find mainstream media to be at the heart of many of the West’s issues. Then Knight Foundation’s article “10 basics today’s journalists need” popped up in my Medium feed. Again, David Sirias beat me to it and, like usual, read my mind. Knight Foundation gave some interesting insights and links to useful tools, but the fact that one of their own believes that today’s journalism needs these somewhat democratized common sense skills is laughable. It speaks volumes of the lack of focus on a journalist’s real skills, i.e., ethical investigation and reporting, and the apparent urge to jump onto a sinking ship. If it’s not the students’ urge then its the failure of their educators to prepare them as journalists and not some media conglomerate’s content creators.

If your journalism classes aren’t teaching you most of these “10 basics,” then you’re in the wrong fucking program. Paige Levin, the author of this article, mentions two important points. One, her journalism professor gave a lecture on what journalists need to know and didn’t actually say anything. Maybe in Bagdikian’s mind her professor was overwhelmed with a society that he didn’t understand. And two, “the [media] industry changes too quickly for any curriculum to keep up.” This is all the more reason why the real tenets of journalism aren’t these 10 superficial “basics.”

She does mention that she’s talking about more than “bread-and-butter” reporting — whatever that means. But I suspect she means what CNN and other TV reporters do, which is go out and “report” on a story. (We’ll, leave their inability to do so properly for other articles). But, reporting is only a small superficial facet of real journalism. And I’m dismayed at the fact that her journalism course couldn’t teach her the real basics.

So, what are the tenets?

I’m not a college professor and this isn’t a college course, so don’t expect me to go into depth, but we’ll review the core basics. Let’s start with the most basic tenet of journalism — you serve the public, not your supervisor.

Courtesy of edrants.com

“The press needs free men [and women] with free minds, intellectually open, but its leadership consists of moral slaves whose minds are paralyzed by the specter of profits.” — George Seldes

George Seldes is the grandfather of media criticism and one of the last great muckrakers. He understood the value of the press and its obligation like few journalists since. After years of working for the Chicago Tribune and wide acclaim, he quit because his managing editor censored a story he had written about tensions between Mexico and the US. He didn’t compromise his values.

Which leads us into the next basic every journalist should know — full context and honesty are above all else. It’s a complicated world today. Even more so than the time Seldes was living in. And like Ben Bagdikian so clearly pointed out, a narrow publication leads to an overwhelmed society. Those who compromise their values, and there are many today, don’t deserve the titles of journalist.

Bringing us to the last tenet I’d like to review — journalism is not reporting alone, it is not holding a mic in front of a camera; journalism is investigation.

Courtesy of Getty Images

“ Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.” — George Orwell

The first two tenets we spoke about are less skill-based and more value-based, but investigation requires a specific set of skills that can take years to learn without a proper education. These are the real skills one should be learning in a journalism program. Today’s digital world has only given us better tools with which to investigate — tools to hold institutions, corporations, and governments accountable. Yet, Knight Foundation spoke nothing of these tools or even investigative skills in its “10 basics.”

The state of journalism today is the same sorry state that George Seldes was born into as a journalist, it is the same state prophesied by George Orwell, and the same state so aptly described by Ben Bagdikian. It is a state that parallels the end of muckraking, when large corporations and media conglomerates bought large stake-holds in the nation’s publications. It’s an Orwellian reality where journalism is broken and journalists compromise their values and can’t perform basic math.

In future articles I’ll explore new interactive tools and conceptual technology that can be used to enhance transparency, sourcing, investigation, and other aspects of real journalism.


Originally published on Medium.

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