The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

News journalists: Not not the enemy

Posted by Ron George on February 27, 2017

Cartoon by A.F. Branco

News journalists are not dishonest, despite what we’re hearing of late from the U.S. president’s Twitter account.

There are some bad apples in the basket because we’re as flawed as any other tribe; but as a rule, news journalists honestly strive – despite low pay and the public’s low esteem – to report the news of the day accurately and fairly. As a group, a profession, we tend to believe that our work makes our nation and the world a better place.

When I say “news journalist,” I mean an honest-to-God news reporter, someone who learns, mostly by experience, how to gather information first-hand and verify facts until what’s below the surface is as clear as the tip of the iceberg above. We learn early, often the hard way, that the tips we receive lead to unanticipated results. We also learn early to be skeptical of information that comes in the form of so-called news releases from sources wanting mere publicity.

When I say “news journalist,” I mean honest-to-God editors who challenge every fact, every comma and every spelling; literate, perceptive, experienced news journalists who drive reporters crazy with questions and possible angles that may have eluded reporters’ notice. Their mission: to make the report more complete, perhaps more interesting, but always as accurate and fair as possible.

And, for the record, I’ve never known a news journalist trying to “sell newspapers,” as we’re so often accused of doing. That’s the business of publishers and circulation managers. In the newsroom – and not what you see called a newsroom on TV – we’re in the often gritty business of discovering unpleasant but noteworthy information that the public has a right to know.

When I say “journalist,” I’m not talking about cable-channel and talk-radio “opinionators” whose primary purpose is to ratify the beliefs of their fan base. These network celebrities claim to be part of the news media but their fact-gathering is driven solely by an ideological agenda. There seems to be a place for this kind of broadcasting because there’s certainly a market for it – but it ain’t news journalism.

Cartoon by A.F. Branco

Cartoon by A.F. Branco

The longer we work as journalists the more cynical we become, because so few things turn out to be as good as they first appear; so we’re continually reminding ourselves to be less downbeat and somewhat more optimistic as we face the daily, often grueling, task of publishing news on deadline. As a group, we’re not easy to live with, which often taxes our personal lives and families.

We make mistakes, sometimes, and the pure hell of it is that our mistakes are made in public; and, sometimes, they do great harm. News journalists hate to get it wrong, not just because it’s humiliating and, perhaps, harmful, but also because it erodes the very core of our professional standards and reputation; and, worst of all, it diminishes public trust, which is never very high in the first place.

I was once, at best, a mediocre journalist working for a second-rate newspaper, but the rules were still the same: Avoid errors of fact at all costs; write clearly, and treat people with respect, even when you have to be persistent in asking hard questions. News journalism is not about making news journalists shine in the public eye; in other words, it’s not about your byline but what comes after that. Few news journalists become celebrities, and that’s a good thing.

In a way, news journalism is a vocation, though not in a spiritual or religious sense. News journalism is a calling in the sense that it’s a necessary though largely thankless task that serves the body politic by disclosing our social issues, for better and for worse, on the assumption that public information strengthens our nation in humane, productive ways. This may not be a common view, because journalists are notoriously cynical, even about their own profession; but viewed as a vocation, news journalism requires personal courage, professional dedication and even financial sacrifice. (The median annual salary for newspaper reporters is about $34,000.)

And let us not forget that news journalism is protected by the U.S. Constitution. It ranks right up there with free speech and freedom from state-sponsored religion. (In my opinion, the First Amendment has done more to secure and assure American liberty than the Second Amendment ever has or ever will.)

Our president has a right to be unhappy with news journalism’s coverage of his administration. Most presidents, after all, have a love-hate relationship with the press, because it’s beyond their control, as it ought to be. Frankly, I often find the White House press corps tedious and self-absorbed, but I have a high regard – and expectation – regarding their honesty: I’ll assume it until it’s shown to be otherwise.

Mr. Trump  has crossed a line by declaring again and again that the press – news journalists like me – are enemies of the American people. He’s entitled to his opinion, of course, but his inflammatory rhetoric harms the fabric of the society he claims to represent by eroding Americans’ trust in a profession that vitally undergirds the nation’s freedom.

I would encourage my fellow citizens to think twice before accepting Mr. Trump’s warped argument that people like me are the enemy.

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