Journalism 101

I am the son of a journalist, and have always had a strong interest in both the product and the process. Both are becoming more and more suspect.

Time after time, I read stories where it is obvious that the reporter did not ask any follow-ups. There has been no research beyond the press release facts. The writing is pedestrian, the structure mundane.

The same goes for more and more editorials. It seems that someone on the editorial page staff sits down with 15 minutes left until deadline and proceeds to throw something on the page without thought or research. All vent and no verity (or verification).

We’ve always had “press release journalism,” and the reporter as mere scribe is not new. What strikes me is how pervasive it is becoming. The formula seems to be: (1) Read the press release and decide to do the story. (2) Call the originating entity and get a statement. (3) Call the opposing entity, if any, and get an opposing statement. (4) Write it up.

It’s “balanced” because both sides have statements. Never mind that what one side says is exaggerated, distorted, or an out-and-out lie; there’s no time or resources to track that down. Just throw it on the screen, slam it into the page, and rush to do the next one.

The dramatic cuts in reporting staffs is the great untold story of our time. Corporate news organizations are demanding higher profits, and one way to do that is to cut staff. So, instead of a reporter working a “beat” (as my father did with city/county government and the courts for over ten years), we have “writers,” not “reporters.” They can write, but they can’t do the work of a reporter: do the research, ask the questions, dig out the truth.

Ultimately, each of us is the victim in this tale. We have lost the protection of an energetic press, of reporters and editors not afraid to pursue truth, no matter where it takes them.

With executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government under the control of one party, a press capable of standing apart is critical to democracy. Unfortunately, the fourth estate is looking less like an estate and more and more like tenant farmers.

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