I am afraid for my students. Five years ago, I left the newsroom for the classroom because I thought my profession could be headed toward a crisis and I could make a greater difference by training future journalists. Don’t misunderstand. I believe one journalist doing her job right on a daily basis makes a difference, but if I trained multiple journalists to do so, that could be even better.
Today, as I stand in my classroom, journalism is not yet in crisis, but it is undergoing significant changes that will impact the kind of journalism my students do in the years to come.
Those changes are examined in the first annual report on “The State of the News Media 2004,” which was released in March. The Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, D.C., collected and synthesized information from a variety of sources and partners to create the report, which is available at www.journalism.org.
The report, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, delineates eight trends impacting journalism. In this column, I do not have room to explore each trend, so I focused on the four most relevant to my classroom.
The first trend revolves around the reality that news is a business. News organizations are competing for dollars, and much of the new investment in the field today is in distributing the news, not in gathering it. Most sectors of the media are cutting back both newsroom staffs and the time allotted to report stories, the study indicates.
As an educator, I face a constant battle to move my students out of their comfort zones to hit the streets and talk to real people about real stories. They want to sit in their dorm rooms and surf the Net. They want to e-mail sources and conduct their research without talking to anyone face-to-face. This makes me grind my teeth at night.
Even when I require them to interview a minimum of three sources for a story, some choose to have their grade lowered rather than muster the courage to talk to strangers. Teaching my students to be writers is a much easier task than turning them into reporters. Reporting takes time and commitment, and one of its joys is meeting new people.
This trend concerns me because shrinking newsroom budgets are going to force more reporters to gather the news from their desks, undermining the quality of their work and reinforcing some of my students’ bad habits.
A second trend notes that sources are exerting more influence over the press, and our inability to get out of the newsroom makes it easier for them to do so. In other words, those who hope to control the press are having more success at it.
For example, a reporter previously might have had a Rolodex of 15 sources on the Asian economy, but with increasing competition and the rush to get information out, the reporter might now have fewer sources, said Amy Mitchell, associate director for the Project for Excellence in Journalism. So sources are taking more control of the news and demanding more from journalists in exchange for information, she said. Sources might be granted anonymity when it is not necessary in order to ensure their cooperation. Supply and demand, as well as workload, may account for this, the report states.
But in class, I stress independence from sources and the value of having a large pool to draw from. Our goals should be more perspectives, not homogeneity. In fact, once we let our sources demand things in return for their help, we’ve left the arena of journalism for the realm of public relations. The hacks have become flacks, if you will.
A third trend is that news is being presented in raw form. Some news is not as polished or vetted as it used to be. The 24-hour news cycle and some online reporting have contributed to news being rushed into print or on the air.
This trend is also counter to what I teach – reporters must compulsively check for accuracy and constantly polish their articles. Nothing is more important than accuracy. I beat my students over the head with fact checking and the notion that they have to edit themselves. I preach what I once heard: Every word of every sentence must add value to that sentence or the reporter must take it out.
But if today’s news is going to be sold in the raw, what’s the point of that sermon?
A fourth trend reveals that journalistic standards are hard to nail down even within the same news organization – I cannot imagine anything more confusing for students. My students often complain they receive conflicting advice from various professors. I respond that the variation concerns personal taste in writing and news judgment, but in our small department, we adhere to the same journalistic standards.
But this may not be the case within all news organizations, according to the Pew study.
“Companies are trying to reassemble and deliver to advertisers a mass audience for news not in one place, but across different programs, products and platforms,” it states. “To do so, some are varying their news agenda, their rules on separating advertising from news, and even their ethical standards.
“What will air on an MSNBC talk show on cable might not meet the standards of NBC News on broadcast, and the way that advertising intermingles with news stories on many newspaper Web sites would never be allowed in print. Even the way a TV network treats news on a prime-time magazine versus a morning show or evening newscast can vary widely.”
This provides a broken compass for would-be journalists. If NBC can have an identity crisis, how are my students supposed to find their bearings?
All these concerns make my job harder – and, perhaps, more important than ever. I will continue to harp on the value of good reporting, the craft of storytelling and the ethics involved in doing both. I will drive my students to both report and write ethically, and if they do that, my guess is they’ll be fine over the long haul.
Pam Parry is assistant professor of journalism at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she also previously taught as an adjunct at American University and George Washington University’s Center for Career Education in Washington, D.C.