The State of Journalism Today

“Journalism is dead.”

“Journalism is thriving online.”

“Journalism is devolving.”

“Journalism is changing.”

“There are no real journalists left.”

“The people are the modern day journalists.”

With so many contradictory and incompatible soundbites being thrown around about the same profession, one wouldn’t be blamed to concluded that the true state of journalism is a very schizoid beast these days.  Of course, a lot of the opinions thrown around concerning journalism (as a profession, and as a practice)  will depend on a person’s viewpoint.

People who prefer a more traditional, investigative approach to journalism (à la Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) will bemoan the talking head, opinionated turn journalism has taken.  24-hour news channels partially set us down the path of conditioning us to a more commercialized, on-demand source for our news consumption.  In contrast, true investigative journalism takes a lot of time and resources, especially if said journalists aims to uphold their work to a passable level of ethical responsibility (i.e. cross-reference sources, don’t force a narrative, forego personal biases when contradicted by facts, and don’t speak for the facts of the case but let the facts speak for themselves).  These are, of course, responsibilities that news channels often ignore.  That’s not to say that they do not/cannot employ or report solid investigative journalism on an individual basis, but that as for-profit institutions (who rely on investors and advertisers) their primary incentive cannot be said to lie with simply investigating (and, if need be, challenging) the truth of newsworthy cases–they lie with not upsetting the agencies and institutions that they depend on to pay the bills.

This is where the controversy surrounding retaining access comes into play.  News journalists want to be able to talk to newsworthy individuals.  By large, these individuals will be less willing to talk to journalists (and the networks/publications they represent) if they feel antagonized by them, which is why journalists have an incentive to mitigate this apprehension for the sake of the newsworthy individuals, so as to retain access to them throughout the course of their relevance in the news.  Such a setup makes it difficult to properly investigate or challenge people/events/organizations/authorities, at least to the point that it calls for to present a comprehensive, undiluted report to the public.  If Woodward and Bernstein had been concerned with having access to President Nixon, and the other perpetrators of the Watergate scandal, the presentation of the facts in that case might have been much softer to the public, than the truth of the high-level criminal act (on the part of Nixon and his accomplices) that it was shown to be.  This is why access journalism has to, by its nature, be conservative (that’s small “c” conservative, meaning an interest in the continuity of current institutional structures, not necessarily a right-wing political leaning).

The advent of exclusively online news sources (bloggers, vloggers, YouTubers, and just online personalities and commentators in general), has been described as a reaction against this kind of access journalism.  Some even consider it a return to the more robust form of journalism, because it gives voice and power directly to the people, without first being filtered through advertisers, agencies, and corporate structures.  However, there is an obvious flaw with this model, too.  Namely, “the people” aspect.

This may be an unpopular opinion to state in the blogosphere, but the public in general doesn’t make for a good judge on truth (or justice, for that matter).  While a medium spearheaded by  what can colloquially be referred to as popular public interest will have little qualms about challenging anyone it deems to be wrong on an issue (any popular online comment section is a testament to this fact), the actual investigative component of good journalism will almost always be all but forgotten through this format.  That’s the part about needing to cross-reference sources, not forcing a narrative, foregoing personal biases when contradicted by facts, and not speaking for the facts of the case but letting the facts speak for themselves.

How may online news commentators and personalities hold to this standard, when what they’re reporting goes against the conclusions and narratives they already agree with and wish to promote?  Very few, indeed.  Because they don’t need to.  And that’s why it’s so easy to start social media outrages and “witchhunts” over minor individual infractions instigated by online commentators who want to play at journalism, but don’t want to do the hard work required by it.  Their audience (and with the rise of gofundme, patreon, and monetization of view counts, one can even go so far as to call this audience “their funders and investors”) doesn’t watch and listen to be informed on a topic; they watch to have their presupposed opinions validated.  The only checks that are in place here are other online commentators who will criticize you from their sites and channels, none of which really matters if you have a large enough audience to withstand such attacks, regardless of how misinformed your opinions really are.

[A quick word needs to be mentioned concerning another popular route of dispensing news (especially regarding confidential truths): the whistleblower.  WikiLeaks is a good example of a medium which will publish information obtained by clearance-sensitive personnel that otherwise would have been unavailable to the public.  Although whistleblower resources like this can, and do, play a vital role in investigative journalism, it would be technically incorrect to deem either the whistleblowers, or the medium they publish their provided information through, as journalists.  The journalist is the journalist, not his or her source or the medium he or she works for.  And whistleblowers are by definition always a source, never the investigators of a news story.]

If this post sounds like an elitist appeal that’s because it is.  Just like I believe only elite basketball players should go on to play for the NBA, and only elite authors should win the Nobel Prize in Literature, I believe only elite journalists, who uphold the most basic of investigative standards and integrity asked of by their profession, ought to be regarded as actually being members of said profession.  And, in my opinion, there are very few self-professed journalists striving to uphold such a standard today.  Moreover, the mediums we are depending on to get our news from seem less and less conducive to fostering any sort of journalistic integrity at all.  A trend I don’t see changing any time soon.

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