Thursday, February 04, 2010

Reflections on the state of journalism

While I generally discourage completely anonymous comments (I'd prefer people sign, if not their full name, at least a first name or nickname), I do allow them.

In one of several recent pieces I wrote exposing holes into the controversial anti-APA story written by The Post-Star's anti-APA reporter Will Doolittle, an anonymous commenter left the following observations:

The way I see it, in the most recent era of newspaper journalism, objectivity in reporting was considered the ideal and the goal of many organizations. In a nutshell: reporters reported news, and opinions were largely contained on the editorial page (columnists who often reported or broke news and laced their reports with their own points of view often appear outside the confines of the editorial page, but have always been identified as columnists).

This basic division between the newspaper's missions was as strong a firewall as the division between advertising (the other mission of the newspaper is to make money) and news/editorial content. The best example of the news/opinion firewall was the pre-Murdoch Wall Street Journal--very conservative editorial page, but solid, straight-forward news gathering. (Naturally this ideal works for papers large enough to have separate Opinions page staff. Mom & pop weeklies simply cannot afford to build firewalls.) Whether or not the ideal of objectivity was ever attained, or even attainable is a side issue.

That era seems to have come to an end with the advent of new media—which are largely POV sources—and Fox News which is run by former political operator Roger Ailes. The emerging landscape looks a whole lot more like early nineteenth century partisan journalism than it does our more recent past.

For newspapers, the recent decline in their fortunes has led to greater experiment in format & content which often entails lowering the advertising or editorial firewalls.

What happened at the Post-Star: editorial page elements dovetailing so conveniently with news elements (as reported by a columnist) to create a thematic "synergy," had the general aroma of just such a barrier-busting stunt.

For an older generation looking for an honest broker in news reporting, this sort of experimentation is dispiriting.

And I would add: for a younger generation with far more exposure to punditry than quality journalism, this sort of experimentation is now accepted as the norm because they've known been given enough of the latter to know the difference.

I've noted with dismay for some time the tendency of The Post-Star and other papers to have an eerie 'synergy' between reporting and editorializing. A story on the bust of an underage drinking party on the front page of the paper is inevitably followed in that same edition by an editorial denouncing adult complicity with underage drinkers. That underage drinking news stories (one of the paper's overt editorial crusades) are inevitably given more prominent placement than comparable non-violent police blotter stories and that the names of underage drinkers are published even though the names of all other minors charged with misdemeanors or non-criminal offenses are not published are both examples of the twinning of the news and the editorial.

When I was a college journalist, we were taught that if the paper published a story on a topic, it should not editorialize on that topic in the same issue. The premise was to let the story (whose purpose is to be objective) speak for itself rather than having an editorial (whose purpose is to have a point of view) shove the paper's opinion down readers' throats before they've had a chance to properly digest it. Having editorials take positions in the same issue as purportedly objective investigative 'exposés' and then claiming that news and editorials are separate is way too convenient.

Post-Star managing editor Ken Tingley took a shot at readers for their poor spelling and grammar in letters to the editor and online comments.

The Atlantic's Michael Kinsley has his own thoughts on what ails newspaper journalism: verbosity and overhype. While his diagnosis seems more geared toward the country's most influential dailies, local papers being more known for excessive brevity, it's a worthy read. One complaint of mine he echoes:

There’s an old joke about the provincial newspaper that reports a nuclear attack on the nation’s largest city under the headline "Local Man Dies in NY Nuclear Holocaust." Something similar happens at the national level, where everything is filtered through politics. ("In what was widely seen as a setback for Democrats just a year before the midterm elections, nuclear bombs yesterday obliterated seven states, five of which voted for President Obama in the last election...")

Update: The continuing speculation over the fate of Gov. Paterson is yet another example of 'mainstream' outlets adopting the standards of trash journalism. Wild rumors circulated Albany that The New York Times was going to reveal some damning scandal about the governor who was supposedly going to then resign. No one could say for sure what the story would be about, only that it was supposedly going to be worse than previous admissions about his personal life made by the governor.

According to reliable sources [sic], the 'bombshell' was supposed to run in the
NYT last Monday, then yesterday, then today. It has yet to be published.

Apparently, the Associated Press' Albany bureau wrote a story on this rumor based on the celebrity gossip-based Page Six of
The New York Post. It used to be that in serious journalistic outlets, until there was a story, there was no story. Is there really much hope for the future of serious journalism when the AP is relying on the Post's Page Six?


Anonymous said...

News from the Post-Star. According to Managing Editor Ken Tingley, the organization will stop running letters to the editor on its free web site. Which means, if you want to read corrections to factual errors, or rebuttals to the oftentimes summary editorial judgments you'll need to buy the newspaper or a subscription to their e-edition.

Perhaps MFYC could do a daily encapsulation of the P-S letters.

Brian said...

I'm not sure I have time to do this on a daily basis. I may feature selected that I find compelling, though I'll have to investigate how this relates to fair use copyright.

Though it's already refused to publish online a stinging ethical criticism of Will Doolittle's anti-APA series. This was at a time when it was publishing all other letters on its website.