Things Journalists Wish You Knew About What They Do

Things Journalists Wish You Knew About What They Do November 3, 2018

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First off, let me clarify that what I am doing here is not, strictly speaking, journalism.

While I try to maintain high journalistic standards in this column, in terms of both legal parameters and professionalism – and encourage other Patheos writers to do likewise – blogging is not journalism. Yes, it can be a path to journalism, a venue for journalists – and some blogging has journalistic-level quality, just as some has academic-level quality. But no matter how excellent an academic blog piece, it still does not count as a peer-reviewed article in a scholarly publication; similarly, no matter how professional I try to be in a Patheos column, this is not journalism per se.

Being honest about this doesn’t mean undercutting my own credibility. I am a trained academic, and can speak with professional authority on many topics. Other Patheos writers are able to speak with authority about canon law, literature, church documents, film, and so forth. And we write in order to tell our stories, stories that no one else has, and which need to be heard.

People who are confused by the diversity of views expressed on Patheos channels need to understand that each of us, for the most part, self-edits. And while each of us may have our own agenda, the channel itself serves only as a conduit – or as an agora, if you will, a meeting place where thought is exchanged.

But the value of our own work depends on our own integrity, not on a rigorous system of fact-checking that is part of the system of professional journalism.

And this is only part of the first thing you need to know about what journalists do: that not every publication that comes your way is created equal. This is especially true of online media, where writers may also be their own publishers, albeit on a shared platform, such as this one. In the internet world, anyone can create a media outlet, hire anyone to write, and pretend it’s on the same level as a professional publication. And even before the rise of the internet, there has long been a tabloid press where sensationalism and bias take precedence over honesty. There are also popular magazines, PR publications, and other print media in which “standards of journalism” don’t apply for the simple reason that those involved are not even aware of them.

I can think of many memorable occasions in which I discovered absolute howlers in popular magazines – such as references to Jane Austen as “Victorian,” or the assumption that “dressage” means “equestrian clothing.”

So, “I read an article that said x” doesn’t carry much weight unless we know the source. Yes, in logic this counts as the genetic fallacy, but in the world of media, as well as academia, source matters.

In the media world, there are some sources that are known to be reliable, others that are known to be mendacious. And this leads me to the second thing you should know: it’s not just about bias. Every human being has a bias, but some people strive to be objective even when it’s painful to do so. Similarly, a publication may have a clear bias but also be known for factual reporting.

Know your media outlets.

There’s a lot of media-bashing going on these days, and some of it at least is due to the fact that many media outlets are unreliable, even deliberately dishonest. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the difference between serious journalism and mere public writing. We ought to be able to denounce the dishonest and the unprofessional without making blanket statements that falsely accuse the hardworking writers who shine the light on reality for us. Especially at a time when authoritarian powers are demonizing journalists in order to solidify their hold on the popular imagination, trash-talking journalists who often put their lives on the line to tell us the truth is not some kind of superior, cynical stance. It’s sloppy, and even morally irresponsible.

Here are a few things some journalists think you should know about their work:

From one journalist:

No, journalists do NOT get a fax every morning from the DNC with talking points for the day. Seriously. I gave a talk about media and communications to deacons in Nebraska a couple years ago, and one of the first questions they asked me was: “When you were at CBS, how many of your stories were chosen for you by the government?” I said, “Huh?” And he repeated: “On average, how much did the government tell you what to report and how to report it?” I told him “Zero,” but I don’t think he believed me.

From a freelance writer friend:

when I say I pitch several outlets, that doesn’t mean any nefarious plot is afoot. It means I am doing my job finding a home for a story. Also? You can’t just make stuff up and get away with it. That’s not a thing.

Another journalist writes:

That we are trying to get at the truth. And that might not be convenient to your political party, and occasionally it might have a bias one way or another depending on the source, but, ultimately, what we’re trying to do is shine a light into the dark corners of whatever affects our readers’ lives.
And also: Journalism isn’t slick suits on CNN or Fox News. It’s reporters working too many hours with too little pay who eat at their desks and in their cars while waiting on a source to call them back. We are not the mainstream media. We’re just men and women who have the balls to ask tough questions to those in charge.

A long-time journalist says of her work:

I was a magazine journalist for 25 years: fact checker, reporter, editor at Time Inc., Audubon Magazine, National Geographic, among others. I was fortunate to have been trained by and to have worked for and with excellent, experienced journalists and writers. I learned what questions to ask, how to judge the reliability of a source, how to tell a story, how to explain difficult concepts, how to research a story, how to work with a huge range of writers, professional and non, to improve their stories, all often under deadline pressure while handling multiple stories, up to 30 stories at a time when I was an editor at NG. Everything I worked on was thoroughly fact checked. As an editor, if I wanted to keep working, I had to have excellent judgment, which I developed after many years of experience and learning from talented, experienced journalists. But that was then, this is now, where there are no gatekeepers and anyone with a phone and a Twitter account can be a ‘journalist’. Maybe that is part of the problem?

And another veteran journalist:

I work with a team of extraordinary editors, including a seasoned professional from The New Yorker. It’s a real struggle to be heard in this cacophony. We have to consider search engine optimization and rejigger our headlines so they gain attention. Our work right now is really important. We have limited resources, but we’re using our funds to pay a few young but eager reporters in battleground states to write about voter suppression. We’re doing a better job than the big media players. Democracy matters to most journalists.

Another journalist reminds the reader of their responsibility to read the whole thing:

I wish people knew how much thought and effort goes into every story. That sometimes editors cut parts you wished had stayed in for clarification but lack of space made the decision. That any negative news printed about someone isn’t a personal attack,but was printed because it was thought to have local concern or was otherwise relevant. That small newspapers feel pressure from large networks to cover certain stories, even though they’d like to move on. Want to know the whole story? Read the ENTIRE story. Not everything can be in the lead and yes, headlines are written to grab attention, but there’s more to the story on page 2A, or whatever. Remember news media, particularly print media, is one of the few industries that will publish corrections of itself. Reporters want to be as accurate as possible, their livelihood depends on it.

Serious journalists are serious about getting it right:

We fact check. A lot. And when something slips through anyway, because humans, we are very upset and we announce a correction prominently.

A friend of mine with a long-time career in journalism reminds us of the real work that’s entailed:

Of all my classmates in journalism school (MS in journalism, U of Illinois, 1996), very few of us went into actual journalism, i.e., writing for a newspaper or magazine. Most of them thought “journalism” meant gadding about New York or Washington, meeting sources in coffee shops, commentating sagely on the Sunday morning news shows, being world famous. One guy in my class thought he’d graduate and go right to covering Bulls, Cubs, and Bears games for the Chicago Tribune. Imagine his chagrin when the small paper that hired him sent him to cover high school football. He didn’t last.

Journalism is school board and city council meetings. It’s covering a ribbon cutting at a new veterans’ home or the auctioning off of a Krugerrand that someone put in a Salvation Army kettle. It’s crying in the bathroom after watching a dead mother of 11 get pried out of the back of a van after a car crash. It’s cranking out a story about a drug bust on a tight deadline or stopping to cover a house fire on the way home from a long shift because no one else is around to cover it. It’s getting bullied by cops who don’t like you just because you’re a reporter – and making it all worth it when you crack a cops/doughnuts joke to one. It’s extremely long hours for very little pay. It can be devastating to family life.

I covered everything from Cardinal Bernardin’s funeral in Chicago and Pope John Paul’s visit to St. Louis to fires, car crashes, and local citizens who spent their Saturdays building wheelchair ramps for shut-ins. I learned more about school budgets and property taxes then 99 percent of the loudmouths who bitch about schools and taxes.

And yes, I even got to cover a Bears game once (take that, Chicago sportswriter wannabe!). It’s a hard life. It’s a good life. I don’t recall it ever being a glamorous life.

Truth-seekers….even when inconvenient.

When I see the work journalists do, I am reminded somewhat of my work when I was an academic in the field of philosophy. I’m reminded of the almost obsessive need to get every detail correctly, because while 99% of people won’t know the difference, those who do are the ones who matter – but, more importantly, because you got into this because of this weird obsession you have with seeking the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may make you – or make others.

And in both cases, from time to time, those who want to defend the status quo, and resist being dragged out of their epistemological caves, end up turning against the truth-tellers. From time to time, telling the truth can even get you killed.

So think about the words you use, when you talk about the real, hard-working individuals in this line of work. As they know better than most: the words you use matter.

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