Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Religious Journalism

I found a blog on in which the author, a self-proclaimed atheist, bewailed the fact that religious reporters seem to perpetuate misconceptions about religions because they don't know their topic. This would be unacceptable on the science or business page, he writes, but it is tolerated on the religion page for some unknown reason.

"You can’t reach people you consistently misrepresent and don’t attempt to understand," he concludes.

Writers of fiction understand that crafting effective stories requires knowing what makes your characters tick. Why should journalism be any different?

As we discussed in our most recent class presentation, religion is both one of the most pervasive and most ignored aspects of American society. It behooves reporters to pay attention to religious factors that may influence their stories, and to do so, they must do their homework and understand the background surrounding the material they are working with. Yet religion also effects many of us, leading us to question what is a conflict of interest, and what is not. In some cases, these questions lead to approaching the topic with hesitance, and the end result is sometimes the poor or nonexistent coverage we see in the media.

While surfing online, I also found a great site which endeavors to ease the fears of journalists asked to cover religion, or stories with religious aspects. has posted online a detailed guide to reporting on religion, including an explanation of several of the world's most prominent religions. It also includes tips for managing conflicts of interest, and suggested one avoid the following situations:

·  Reporting on your own congregation or place of worship in any way.
·  Promoting your faith tradition above others or endorsing its beliefs in any way.
·  Profiling people you know through your religious life.
·  Reporting on issues for which you’re involved in advocacy on behalf of your faith group. It’s one thing to profile a homeless person if you feed homeless people; it’s another if you are representing your church in lobbying the city council to build a new homeless shelter.
·  Reporting on issues from which you cannot separate your religious beliefs. For example, if your tradition teaches that homosexuality is a sin and you do not feel you can impartially write about debates on gay ordination, you should [excuse] yourself from coverage.
·  Any leadership position that would compromise your ability to report impartially about a religious tradition

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What happens when we employ journalism of assertion sans attribution

One of today’s sessions of the Mormon Media Studies Symposium delved into the struggles of Mormon politicians. Though I, as I’m sure many others are, am well aware of the general hostility mainstream culture seems to harbor for those of the LDS faith, I had never before realized exactly why the American public reacts so poorly to Mormon politicians. But scholars John Gee and Lane Williams analyzed the Romney family’s situation, and came up with a probable answer.

Gee took an in-depth look at how the American perception of Mormonism has changed and evolved over the years in his research, detailing how sects of Protestantism have split, merged and split again to create a recent movement Gee has called the “counter cult” movement. Williams used a compare and contrast method, looking at George Romney’s campaign, which was almost successful, and comparing it to Mitt Romney’s campaign, which collapsed over the course of a single year.

They came to the same conclusion: Mormons are disliked because there is doubt in the typical American’s mind as to whether the LDS faith is a Christian faith. Gee showed how through history “hate-mongering” publications have classified Mormonism as a cult, and Williams demonstrated one of the key differences between two campaigns was their position before and after the “counter-cult” movement.

And both said the press was largely the cause of Mitt Romney’s failure. While the press often brought up the question of whether or not Mormons are Christian during his campaign, the press never acknowledged who first asked that question—the counter-cult movement, which was led by an individual whose stated goal was to destroy the LDS faith by taking away Mormons’ rights as American citizens.

It all goes back to what we’ve been talking about in class. A little more digging and a few less assumptions could have led to a whole different outcome. But instead of dispelling malicious lies about the church, the press perpetuated them, asking a question that caused the American public to remember sermons taught about how Mormons did not deserve the right to vote, much less to hold office.

There’s a lesson in there for us student journalists, I think.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Okay, so I’ll be the first to admit I was tempted to title this post, “Why I can write anything I feel like writing.”

Two problems with that: First, it’s not entirely true, which violates my journalistic obligation to the truth. Second, it violates this whole idea of humility, which I also happen to believe is central to good journalism.

Nonetheless, whether we admit it or not, I think all journalists secretly crave opportunities to irk authority with the power of the press. It all goes back to an instinctive dislike most journalists I’ve encountered thus far harbor for authority figures. Ironically, judging by our actions, we journalists also adore authority figures. After all, prominence and eminence are some of the strongest news values to which we members of the press adhere.

But all of that has to do with Herbert Gans’ theories, and that’s a topic for an entirely different blog post.

What I mean to write about today is the role of the so-called watchdog press, the reason why the American press is sometimes thought of as a fourth branch of government. It is the duty of the American press to check the government’s power—to ensure government officials do nothing shady without the public’s knowledge, and to make evidence of wrongdoing public.

According to Poynter Online, “Watchdog journalism is a state of mind for the whole newspaper.” It’s the state of the community newspaper looking after those who live alongside them. And it is something I feel both journalists and citizens are inching away from. Journalists, from what I have seen, are increasingly viewing the watchdog role as a justification for writing racy “exposés” for the sole purpose of capturing eyeballs. Our text brought up several concerns regarding the irresponsible overuse of the watchdog role, pointing out that the American public continues to grow more skeptical of the press’s value as journalists continue to cry wolf.

I can’t be the only one following the story of Russian journalist Oleg Kashin, who was allegedly beaten for writing unpopular statements about recent protests and political movements. If you’re not familiar with the story, you can read up on it here. Several activists evidently called Kashin a “journalist traitor” just before the attacks.

If individuals across the world begin to view journalists as the enemy, then perhaps this is a sign of things to come. It will ultimately be the whole of society that decides the fate of the press—it is up to us journalists to prove our work to them.

Perhaps the best way to do this is remember our first obligation is to the citizens and communities we cover. Perhaps we should, as last week’s presentation suggested, ask “What am I doing to make a difference in the community I am serving” before publishing any article. We must ensure our motives are in line with our values and avoid publishing sensationalized exposés for the sole purpose of creating profit.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

It is not difficult to find alleged infractions against journalistic independence. An article from the Harvard Nieman Reports accused modern journalists of catering to sources for the sake of fostering mutually beneficial relationships. Another, from a European news site accused journalists of lacking independence when they are embedded into military units.

But the reality is that most journalists rely on situations like those above to get the job done. While the first situation, especially if the relationship leading to withholding information from the public to protect a source, can be difficult to defend, I find it difficult to find a better solution to the second. We want war reporters, but we simply can’t afford to have each newspaper employ a personal guard for every reporter they send.

Good relationships with valuable sources are often also necessary. Many a story has been phoned in by an insider with whom a journalist had gained trust. Without that familiarity, some stories would never happen. In my personal experience, I was assigned stories over older, more qualified journalists because I knew an acquaintance.

I particularly like how our text, The Elements of Journalism, clarifies and defines journalistic independence, calling it an “independence of mind.” So yes, journalists can have friends, and sources, and even expect to be sheltered by troops of their own nationality when in danger. So long as they remember to where their professional loyalty is owed—to the citizens.

In my mind, independence of mind refers to the vast skepticism the best journalists either posses from birth or develop early in their careers. Journalists question everyone, and everything. They maintain an independence from herd-like thought, and dare to point out when society is following itself off a cliff. They maintain independence from those they cover when, in essence, they are in the world, but not of it.

That’s not a trait most humans are at ease with. Yet many journalists seem to enjoy swimming upstream. Like our text says, “Anyone can be a journalist, but not everyone is.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Power and Responsibility

Last week we had an opportunity for Don Meyers, a reporter at the Salt Lake Tribune, to come to our class to discuss “The Mind of the Journalist.” He started out with the usual blab, the whole giving voice to the voiceless and persistence in tracking down the truth rant, but then he said something that I have always hoped to hear, but was surprised nonetheless when the words came.

According to Meyers, “Journalists are storytellers at heart, plus historians with a sense of justice.”

Thank you, Mr. Meyers, for agreeing with me. But after reading David Carr’s Media Equation column this Monday (see, I had to wonder if it wouldn’t be healthy for journalists to add a belief in ethics to their sense of justice.

Carr’s column discussed a situation in which a blogger decided to publish a scandalous account without the consent of the source, who had insisted she did not want to go public. At first the mainstream media ignored the story, but as it gained momentum, they too decided run their version, again without the permission of the original source.

I worry that in our insatiable appetite for a good story, we are forgetting that all we publish becomes public. It’s really an easy thing to do, once one has become accustomed to seeing their name in print. You forget you have an audience of thousands, and you forget the power that comes with that.

The subject of that scandal will never have the same public image, no matter what may come of the incident. That cannot be repaired—not even the journalist who first released the information can take it back. Perhaps we would do well to step back when offered a great story, to take a moment to remember that with great power comes great responsibility. Where much is given, much is required.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Journalists and Loyalty

Journalism, as far as reporters should be concerned, is not a business. A newspaper is not a product, and citizens are not customers.

Unfortunately, today’s economy is forcing some to make difficult decisions about where their loyalty lies—with their money, or with their readers. But a noble journalist bent on upholding those principals journalists have upheld and stood for since journalism began will always side with the citizens.

But of course, money is always tempting, and many have chosen to go the other way, giving the rest of us a rather bad name and leaving the public to fend for itself.

There is still hope, though. A group of journalists from created and posted online what they call a “Citizen’s Bill of Journalism Rights.” Among the six tenants of their bill of rights, the committee suggested the public not only has a right to be protected by loyal, truthful journalists, but that they have a right to see proof of that loyalty. To do this, journalists must demonstrate their intent to “understand and reflect the whole community” they represent though stories which address the community’s needs, even if doing so is financially detrimental to the community.

According to last week’s presenters, a news organization cannot be successful in these goals without an owner and managers who are committed to producing quality journalism, not just maintaining a 30 percent profit margin. They must create and uphold high journalistic standards communicated both to the journalists who work for them and to the public.

Ultimately, the responsibility to act ethically falls on the reporter. But while the responsibility for any given decision falls solely on the reporter who made that choice, it wouldn’t hurt if the public were to support those who choose to serve them, rather than the flashy tricks of those who serve greed.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Change is good, as long as we keep pace.

One speech, and I'm already a Josh Awtry fan. Not only could he potentially get me a job when I'm done with school here—he's a managing editor at the Salt Lake Tribune—but he's the first person I've heard speak on journalism, who, after the speech, I left feeling more hopeful about my future career.
Journalism isn't going away. But it is going to change radically. And we want to stay on top of that change.
The news of tomorrow will come to the consumers, not the other way around, as it has in the past. If we want to be paid to write, we're going to have to get our names out there and promote our work. We need to develop a following.
Funny, but this is what I've been told for years in the fiction world. Perhaps the two aren't so different as they appear. Perhaps the two occupations will become increasingly similar over the years to come.
Awtry spoke of becoming more personable, of allowing ourselves to be human and adding our own flavor--not to be confused with bias--into our work. Although I'm not the best person at being human, I know about adding tone and flavor and making a work yours. Again, this is what the world of fiction is all about.
The hard part is going to be getting used to this social media stuff, and learning to put myself in the spotlight. That’s the part that doesn’t come easily for me.
But if it means being more able to write what I love, then I’m always willing to try.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

To bias or not to bias? Is that the question?

I found a fascinating little site while browsing the web in a homework-avoidance exercise today. The site, dubbed, strives to collect news stories from media all across the globe and place them side by side their own news analysis, which they claim are produced via the joint effort of a diverse team of reporters to better eliminate bias. They even analyze the content of popular blogs, and offer their translation of those, too.
Is this the future of news? Their founder seems to think so. Their blog is exceedingly positive about the future of their fledging company.
It’s an interesting approach. Rather than reporting news, Newsy reports on what other news sources are reporting. Confusing? Maybe. But Newsy’s blog claims they are making the news of the future, which they claim will become increasingly biased, less inscrutable.
There is a faction—one in which I tentatively place myself, though I strongly dislike predicting the future—that believes the news media will continue to grow more “biased,” as Newsy put it. As technology has made information more globally accessible, we are beginning to access and learn from media from other cultures. A textbook from another of my classes suggests this has allowed American media to dominate and dismantle other cultures, but I think we may be inheriting some foreign tricks as well.
The American press subscribes to the Liberal Model media system—the usual suspicious of everyone and loyal to no one system we uphold like a sacred emblem. The success of this model has been in decline for some time. On the other hand, a model from northern and central European countries, known as the Democratic Corporatist system, has maintained their profits. Journalists from these systems openly adhere to a certain faction, and throw out ideas of balance and objectivity.
For all this talk of American media taking over the world, I can see an argument for the Corporatist system. People like to feel they are part of a larger whole, and subscribing to a certain strain of media can help reinforce those beliefs. I would argue that some media producers, like Fox, are leaning this direction. And I don’t blame them. The Corporatist model makes money. Though there are aspects of such a system that I like less than fingernails on chalk boards, I also like food. And so do many other humans.
So is there a place in society for services like Newsy? It will be interesting to watch this site, and possible others like it, develop over the next few years.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Casual Press?

Among the other usual tidbits, in last Friday’s issue of the New York Times I found a particularly interesting article. The headline read, “Ballerinas, Famed for Silence, Take New Approach: Talking.” See

The New York City Ballet’s reasoning behind the new approach, which was met by some internal opposition—it would seem many world-class ballerinas are rather shy—was that spoken introductions by the performers would break down barriers and humanize the performers. Evidently, with audiences waning, the ballet company hoped to boost ticket sales by making the ballet a less formal experience.

It seems much of the world is leaning toward the informal side of life, and I can’t really blame it. Shorts and flip-flops are especially comfy, and dressing up requires effort. But is it right for the arts, journalism included, to follow the crowd?

Today, to be seen as high-brow is to not make a profit. The younger generation regards things like newspapers and evening news broadcasts as something their stuffy, out-dated parents did, while Facebook and Twitter are regarded as the way information circulates now. If it’s not online and accessible within a casual five-minute search, it’s not worth the fuss.

As I personally like to eat, I can see an argument for humanizing the news. Rapping weathermen and comedian-journalists make money. And we are taught to write the news with a more casual tone. Yet at the same time, as a journalist, I also see the need for the media to uphold society’s standards. If all that’s left of our culture is crude humor, what happens to artistic progress? We lose whole spectrums of thought.

We’ve spent a lot of time in many of my communications classes attempting to predict where the press will end up over the next several decades. This is normal, I suspect. Somehow speculating about our potentially dim future makes us feel better. But if I’ve learned anything in my somewhat limited experience as a writer of science-fiction and other speculative genres, I’ve learned attempting to predict the future is largely a waste of breath. We humans just aren’t very good at it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

More attempts to define journalism

My Comms classes are going the way of today's most popular communication media—the students teach. Is this a case of the foolish trying to indoctrinate the wise, or will all grow together and come to a common wealth of knowledge and experience?

What to call this? Communal learning? Socialist-style education, perhaps? If nothing else, I like the way that sounds on paper. But the lingering teenager in me naturally fights against any and all attempts to make me, a stalwartly independent individual, a part of a larger anything. So whether or not this interesting class model works and or pleases me has yet to be seen.

Not that anyone really cares about my opinion. I’m not a scholar. But such is the wonder of today’s technology. I can throw all sorts of nothingness at the world.

Am I rambling, or coming to a point? Probably a little bit of both, with an emphasis on the former. In class last week, a group of students endeavored to teach us, also students, what journalism is. I imagine this is somewhat like trying to explain water to a fish. We live in it, so it might as well not exist. I do not envy their topic.

As a member of the audience for this session—and I use the term audience loosely here—I received a handout rehashing some of our previous attempts to hold water in a sieve. Some thoughts from the handout:

Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
Its first loyalty is to citizens.
Its essence is a discipline of verification.
Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
It must keep the news comprehensive and in proportion.
Its practitioners have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.
Citizens have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.

They also brought up some interesting philosophical talking points, including the human need for information, or “awareness instinct,” as the more scholarly mind on the topic have deemed it. It would seem few willingly cut themselves off from the world around them. This may explain why today’s teens may need their cell phones surgically removed at some future point. In today’s world of technology, our individual realities are both expanding and shrinking. If I am interested in computer games, I can connect instantly with others of like interests from around the world. Yet at the same time I may be entirely ignorant of other topics I am choosing to filter out of the media I consume.

In an essay published in last year’s issue of “The Best American Science and Nature Writing,” an author interviewed Google executives to discover they hope to one day not only provide information, but semi-prophetic answers to individual questions. The questions are answered using computer algorithms that inflict headaches on any who attempt to fathom them. As an experiment, I asked Google, “Where are the modern media headed.” The first entry to come up was the Wikipedia definition for “cross-media.” So even Google’s supercomputers suspect the journalists of the future will need deep knowledge of a few topics, and a broad knowledge of methods for relaying their message.

Modern human civilization is becoming specialized beyond what we once imagined possible. Most materials I have read thus far seem to frame this as a tragedy, as though we are forgetting specialization was the event that ultimately led us down the path to what we now consider “civilized” human society. Are modern media consumption habits a product of too much of a good thing, or are we clinging hopelessly to an outdated ideal?

Personally, so long as global extinction holds off for a few more years, I’m okay with it.

And for the time being, I’m okay with this new class format, too. Off to the side of my notes, I annotated the lecture title, “What is Journalism,” with my own answer—the art of observation. As we proceeded with the presentation, one of the presenters—to whom I must apologize for forgetting her name—offered a possible definition I could agree with.

“Journalism is something we each have inside us. Journalism is about people.”

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What is Journalism for? Who is a Journalist?

I don’t blog. I do not tweet, nor do I text. Until a few months ago, I was the oldest person I knew who had never before owned a cell phone. The cell phone I have now is worth a single-digit sum—it's a dinosaur with terrible service, but it's generally useful for calling home when my fridge malfunctions and I can’t afford to restock it.

In that sense, I am not a journalist.

By completing this assignment, I also forced outside of my usual writing style. I write to entertain—either through escapist creativity and epic plot, or through my alleged talent for making mundane, everyday situations hilarious. Over the past two years, I’ve made a living by poking fun at myself, not waxing philosophical about my life purpose.

And so in that sense, I am not a journalist.

In fact, I’m really not a great candidate for journalism at all. I’m socially awkward, have no real desire to interact with other people, and don’t particularly like being in the limelight. I feel no need to record history, meet important people, or participate in important events.

So why, then, am I of all people attracted to as difficult a career as journalism? Because I am, above anything else, a writer. And as a writer, my first allegiance is to story—capturing the big picture as well as the smallest details and containing them on a page. I strive to offer curious readers the sights and smells, the sensations and feelings, the emotions, even the very essence of every scene I set out to write. Is this journalism? Maybe. Maybe not.

Central to all writing, everything from hard news to surrealist fantasy, is truth. The greatest writers of all genres strive for accuracy, whether in describing the lord of an underwater castle or the local guy who collects French stamps in his basement. In either case, if my account is not accurate, it is of no importance or use to anyone. It becomes meaningless. Ink on paper. Nothing.

The first rule of fantasy is that there are no rules—anything goes. But the greatest challenge of writing fantasy is creating from scratch a fantastic world capable of entirely absorbing the reader. This is where the genres differ. The world of journalism is a world of rules. Rules banning certain words, rules about word counts, rules about the way the sentence should look when it comes off the press. I’m sure there is, somewhere out there, a rule for exactly how one’s heart should beat while typing out the last sentence of a story with seconds left before the deadline. We’ve reduced writing to a math equation. Subject plus verb plus object minus adjective equals quality sentence.

It seems to me that buried somewhere under all the rules and theories is journalism’s soul. We have forgotten why people read. The very act of picking up a book, newspaper or magazine suggests we are looking to experience something beyond the small sphere of reality we experienced while at work or school. Humans naturally long for a sense of community. We are driven toward unity.

That is the purpose of my journalism—to unite and bind together communities. And when we feel a similar sense of grief at a victim’s loss, or outrage at government wrongdoing, or even amusement when a local professor claims to know how to say “may the force be with you” in a half-dozen foreign languages, we connect emotionally. Such accounts make the world seem a little smaller.

In this sense, anyone with eyes, ears, a heart and a pen can be a journalist. Yet at the same time, there is something to be said for having in a society individuals who are willing to skip lunch, dinner, and maybe a few priceless moments of shut-eye to bring to the community dinner table an account of what a flash flood was like. Without collective knowledge and experience to bring us together, we exist only in isolated, fragmented spheres of reality surrounded by a huge and uncaring world where no one seems to think or feel like us.

When I set out to share with others a story of what an event felt like, I am a journalist.