The biggest story of my career happened in 1976 when I reported out of Pierre, S.D., that the swine flu inoculation was causing Guillain-Barré Syndrome.
The story fell into my lap. But first I had to get out of my chair in the United Press International bureau and walk to the health building to update the percentage of residents getting the vaccine. A graduate of South Dakota State University’s journalism program, I was trained to add quotations to a news release before disseminating it and, when possible, to do so in a face-to-face interview rather than by telephone.
A secretary approached me and confided that the shot was causing temporary paralysis. I sidled back to the bureau and investigated her claim, doing a regional report and sharing notes with the Atlanta bureau, which contacted the Centers for Disease Control and broke the story nationwide.
That was how many investigative stories began in the Watergate era. Reporters bumped into them, literally. Newsrooms had enough reporters to send on assignments as seemingly boring as arraignments of petty burglars – something unthinkable in today’s converged, downsized newsroom. Case in point: In 1972, upstart reporter Bob Woodward of The Washington Post was present at the arraignment of five Watergate burglars, one of whom – James W. McCord, Jr. – said he worked for the CIA. The rest is history.
History might be the right word. Stories do not fall as often into reporters’ laps because too many are glued to computers working for gigantic media chains whose profits eclipse truth. While family-owned or moderate-sized companies can be conscientious, larger conglomerates obsessed with profit have downsized newsrooms accordingly. Reporters still go out on assignment and do investigative work, but they are more selective, especially since technology has added chores once done in composing rooms and control booths.
The cumulative effect of greed, downsizing and computerization eventually may create an investigative void in a republic with a free press founded on the principle that truth, not profit, should rise to the top so that voters can make informed choices. Violate that, and we get the governments that we deserve.
Reporters are supposed to be watchdogs of government. That is why journalism is the Fourth Estate, or unofficial branch of democracy, holding officials accountable in the junkyards of bureaucracy. To do so, they must be sprung from the leash of a computer cord. The more that reporters remain in the newsroom, the less often they will luck out on a tip or stumble into a cover-up. The Woody Allen standard still applies: 80 percent of success in investigative journalism is just showing up. Otherwise, investigative stories happen by design in the cubicled newsroom rather than by serendipity in the public street.
Terry Anderson, former Middle East bureau chief for the Associated Press and journalism professor at Columbia and Ohio universities, describes himself as a “street reporter” whose “passion was going to look, then telling people what happened.” Anderson taught students that the medium is irrelevant. “It is the facts that are the focus,” he states. “The rest is just skillful, even brilliant, presentation,” but that is “neither the point nor the purpose of journalism. Being on the street, in the action, or just going to the source, digging through files, interviewing or just talking with the participants … especially, the victims – that is journalism.” In the end, Anderson adds, reporters should be as mobile as technology, which “must never replace the most important part of a journalist – the willingness to burn shoe leather.”
That willingness is being watered down, not because of technology, per se, but because of fewer reporters multitasking in the confines of the computerized, cost-effective newsroom.
At Iowa State University, where I direct the journalism school, our alumni have won five Pulitzer Prizes and a Medal of Freedom. Our unofficial motto – “our first priority is the Fourth Estate” – defines our First Amendment culture and contribution to community. I’m also author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age, chronicling how each technological innovation has removed reporters farther from communities they were supposed to cover.
Before the telegraph, Associated Press reporters rowed into New York harbor to meet ships from Europe. Telegraphs eliminated the oar work. Telephones eliminated the legwork, displacing reporters from sources. Now high-tech newsrooms delete reporters from hometowns. Judiciary proceedings are online along with legislative bills, summarized and thereby sanitized.
The problem is as physical as it is simple: Newsgathering now can be done sitting down. If reporters at your local newspaper were not allowed to leave the newsroom, who would notice? You’d still read wire reports, syndicated columns, op-eds, city news, entertainment and sports with sources interviewed via email or phone and with facts and factoids, Googled or blogged.
Ethicist Lee Wilkins, professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, notes that she has heard newspaper editors complaining about this phenomenon — one, for the past 15 years. The situation has become more critical now, however, because technology and corporate practice facilitate the indoors behavior.
“We don’t talk about this very much,” she says, but getting out of your chair and into the community “is an element of accurate, credible, contextualized news, which we ethics folks call ‘authenticity.’”
Journalists cannot report authentically unless they do so physically and face-to-face with their sources. True, reporters often know their sources because they live in the communities that they cover. Authenticity, however, demands more. Reporters who venture outdoors on assignments or beats tend to view their communities with a more professional, critical eye. They don’t look at issues “in terms of what is good for me,” Wilkins adds, but “what is good for the citizen next-door or the neighbor and the neighbor’s child.”
Craft is also a concern.
“You can’t write for the senses on the Internet. I defy you to collect that level of detail from sight and hearing with streaming video and audio.”
But corporate practice isn’t helping authenticity or enhancing craft.
“It’s really hard to get out of the newsroom when you’re asked to multitask on every story,” Wilkins says, especially when covering a more complex environment.
Wilkins’ focus on craft brings up another authenticity issue as newspaper chains and the Associated Press try to engage readers with narrative, magazine-like journalism utilizing vivid descriptions and sensory images.
Elizabeth Hansen, who serves on SPJ’s national ethics and education committees and teaches magazine journalism at Eastern Kentucky University, says “there is no way” to write in the new narrative style without getting out of the newsroom. If you’re sitting at a computer, being asked to multitask with fewer resources and engage readers using vivid descriptions, “there is a danger of augmenting the facts with material that you simply do not have,” Hansen says.
This new ethical wrinkle, sparked by corporate practice, has the potential to turn fictional techniques into fabrication, further eroding standards along with readership.
Michael Bugeja, who directs the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, is author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford University Press, 2005).