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.”