Journalism has gone soft in the past couple decades (if not longer … I’ve only been around for the past 22 years so I’m speaking from limited experience). This is for a variety of reasons: the fear of being politically incorrect, lost advertisement, the fear of hurting someone’s feelings, or oversensitivity in general. This is wrong.
Let me explain.
I was putting together an opinion page at work the other day and was placing the letters to the editor content. One letter — a very vehement one — caught my eye. The author was berating the newspaper for printing the cause of death (suicide) of a prominent local figure in a news story. As any good journalist knows, prominence is a key reason to print as many details as possible to the get the truth to the masses. The letter stated that the newspaper’s editors should have been more sensitive to the grieving family, and left out of the cause of death.
I understand where the author is coming from. I’ve lost a friend to suicide, and it was a terrible thing to experience. I miss him deeply, so I know where the writer was coming from. However, for the sake of accuracy and disclosure in journalism, especially in the instance of a public figure’s death, sometimes sad details need to be revealed.
This letter made me wonder about journalism and truth. Some might say that they are polar opposites, and in some cases, that is sadly the case. But I believe they should walk hand in hand, even if the truth makes us step out of our coddled comfort zones.
While I was in school, my teachers passed along the wisdom that “journalism is the watchdog of government.” People like Edward Murrow, Woodward and Bernstein, and Nelly Bly took this charge seriously, stepping on toes to reveal truth. Murrow went up against the Red Scare and McCarthy, putting his own name on the line while standing his ground. Woodward and Bernstein blew open an entire presidency and shed light on Watergate. Bly faked insanity to report on asylum conditions from the inside. These people were politically incorrect, rough around the edges, and could have potentially destroyed their careers. But now they’re idolized in journalism courses.
What do we have today? After working at a newspaper for nine months and placing many stories, I’ve come to the conclusion that journalism as a whole has gone soft. Most stories have feature-y content that pulls at the heartstrings and belongs in a glossy spread of a feel-good magazine. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of content, when it is presented for what it is. But sugar-coated stories generally don’t make history. Hard news, especially investigative journalism, has been neglected in favor of the collective comfort zone.
There are still people who are walking in Woodward and Berstein’s footsteps: Most recently, CBS’s Lara Logan was sexually assaulted in Egypt while covering the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. What was done to her was appalling, and her presence in Egypt might not have been the smartest move, in hindsight. But the fact that CBS was even in the country, recording history from the middle of the action, is what journalism is about.
There is a quote on one of the walls at the 9/11 exhibit in the Newseum that stuck out to me when I visited a couple years ago. It sums up the heart of journalism, and the kind of tenacity that every reporter should strive for:
Journalists shouldn’t be afraid of offending anyone. Our job isn’t to worry about people’s feelings, or worry about if advertisers pull their funding because the risk is too big. Our job is to present truth in the most accurate way possible and present it to the masses, no matter the cost.
Sometimes the truth is ugly. Instead of being offended, we should look it square in the eye and ask, “What can we do to change what we don’t like about this situation?”
We record history by running toward the story, not from behind a desk. Step out and prick the underbelly of society, and don’t worry about what people think. They’ll just be reading about you to their kids from a history textbook in a few years, anyway.