What does a journalist do anymore?

Recently I’ve been thinking of the plight of the journalist. Presenting pertinent information for public consumption has always been a challenge, but it seems that doing so is becoming increasing more difficult.

Journalism is defined as: “The activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information. It is also the product of these activities.”¹

Now, journalism as a profession is somewhat a flawed system, because the presenting of that information is a basically capitalist institution. That is, only information that the public will listen to or watch will be worth sharing. However, information that is worth sharing may not be all that compelling.

Something I heard on a local NPR station a couple of months ago got me thinking: “Journalism is taking what’s important and making it interesting; not taking what’s interesting and making it important.”

Much of what we consume as news is in fact opinion. The old tenets of “who, what, where, when, why, and how” still apply, but now we look for to the analysis of those events from people the media tells us to trust. Because that’s where we, as consumers, consistenly turn to.

We find media that is conformed to our sensibilities and we stick with it. By absorbing what they’re throwing down, we’re merely reinforcing our biases, rather than being challenged by viewpoints outside our comfort zones. It’s creating insular bastions that are becoming more difficult to break free of.

Such opinion-based analysis opens up any journalist to criticism. It’s easy for an opinion of one to differ greatly from another. Thus, one may call the other wrong. “Fake news.” But journalism should remain at a distance from the opinion-mongers. How, then, can one present facts in an interesting way without resorting to biases and opinions?

There is a lack in our society which is, by virtue of the vacuum it creates, being filled with the bluster and hot air of those who think they know. Journalism is a profession designed to fill that void with fact. Not to be swayed by opinion and unfair considerations. No, the writer cannot dissuade himself from writing from the vantage point of his own biases, whether known or unknown. But the writer can also write from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know. It’s a journey. All writing should be a journey, with the author and the reader traveling together to learn the end truth.

Televised reports can be the same. The news anchor can introduce the story in her own way, from her own perspective. Then, assume the identity of the uninitiated. Travel with the viewer or the listener to identify some truths that were formerly hidden.

When consuming news, it’s our responsibility to determine what the truth of the situation is. What is the reasoning behind the news report. What side of the issue does the reporting body take. How are we supposed to determine what the truest situation really is. These are issues that are difficult to uncover. These are elements that one doesn’t consider when consuming information.

When we read a textbook, we don’t consider that the material is inherently biased. And thus, when we turn to news reports, similar in vein to how we were educated in school, it’s not always clear at the outset whether or not the reporting is biased as well.

We’re wrong to assume both – that reports of news events aren’t biased and that, also, textbooks aren’t biased. A recent fight over text books in Arkansas demonstrates that someone can look at a historical event and write a considerably differing account of it based on principle and perception.

When a journalist starts the writing process, most often they know the side want to present. And while truth is the underlying force that a reporter should be pushing towards, sometimes the story gets in the way of truth. But that isn’t the case across the board.

We’re fortunate that we have a wealth of qualified, credible sources to turn to when we’re seeking news. We’re also sometimes at the mercy of our own biases when we look to those news sources as well.

The only thing we can reasonably do is stay mindful of what we’re consuming, how we’re consuming it, who we’re consuming it from, and why the story is being presented in the way that it is.

  1. https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/journalism-essentials/what-is-journalism/

Nothing is original

“The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something original, nine out of ten times they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved.”

I once heard that all stories can be broken down to six distant types. I’ve long since lost that particular reference, but I do believe that it makes sense. Maybe six is a presumptuous number.

Certainly you can recall the Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Fate, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Machine, and Man vs. Self as the structure of all conflict in narrative storytelling. Even right there it’s broken down into six component parts, but those aren’t the same six I was referencing.

Perhaps all stories do fall under the category of the type of conflict that leads to the story’s resolution. But, even if not, most of how we approach a story is ornamentation. And beyond that, the heart of the story is the same as hundreds or thousands of stories that have come before.

The influence of filmmaker Akira Kurosawa has long been noted in cinema starting back in the age of the Spaghetti Western. Aristotle’s Poetics has been used as the basis for storytelling since first being written over two-thousand years ago. Time and again, new work relies heavily on the influences of past creators. As Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

FYC 11-13-20

A lot of interesting things this week, as well as a couple of… Well, sad ones.

  • Let’s start with the passing of Jeopardy host, beloved Canadian, and all-around good guy Alex Trebek. Plenty of memorial pieces, including this one from The New Yorker.
  • I didn’t mention the passing of Sean Connery last week, but in light of Trebek, it certainly came at an odd time – given the two were linked through one of the most popular Saturday Night Live sketches ever – Celebrity Jeopardy. This is the retrospective from The New York Times.
  • For a little relaxation and creativity, all 403 episodes of Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting are streaming free. Here are some of my favorite quotes from Mr. Ross:
    • “Anything we don’t like, we’ll turn it into a happy little tree or something. We don’t make mistakes, we just have happy accidents.”
    • “Friends are the most important commodity in the world. Even a tree needs a friend.”
    • “Sometimes you learn more from your mistakes than you do from your masterpieces.”
    • “There’s an artist hidden at the bottom of every single one of us.”
  • An interesting interview regarding the value of clothes. I hadn’t ever thought much about it. I’m fairly easy-going in style choices, and look for inexpensive time and again (I’ve been given several bags of hand-me-down clothing from more fashionably-minded friends, and I wear those often). It also delves into usage of time, boredom, and the relationship with money/consumerism.
  • New York’s Strand Bookstore – an icon amongst the city’s literati – faces uncertainty amidst the pandemic and accompanying challenges.
  • And, finally, there was a determination in the counts, naming Joe Biden as President-Elect, and Kamala Harris as VP. This week had accompanying challenges as well, but less-so than last week, and hopefully more than next week. We all wait with bated breath.

***As for titling this post, when the matter of naming is seemingly so trivial, and yet so important. Perhaps I’ll never actually be satisfied with any ongoing usage of titles on this blog. Just thinking out loud here.

It comes down to perception

Life is the collection of little decisions we make, or don’t make, and the guilt or euphoria that is accumulated as a result. There was a commercial for insurance some time ago, but I don’t recall which company it was promoting. There were two boards, one with expectations of future events, the other with events that happened in the past.

The events were color-coded red and (I believe) blue. Red were negatives, blue positives. The expectation board was weighted heavily towards positive events. The past events showed more evenly distributed events, as evidenced by the colors displayed.

What this was meant to convey is that we expect mostly good things in our lives, but in reality it is much more balanced – positive and negative.

But that’s an incomplete picture as well. Perception plays a huge part in this. I’ll sum up that up with this joke:

Two young brothers were as different as could be. Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities — one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist — their parents took them to a psychiatrist.

First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. “What’s the matter?” the psychiatrist asked, baffled. “Don’t you want to play with any of the toys?” “Yes,” the little boy bawled, “but if I did I’d only break them.”

Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his out look, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. “What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. “With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

Should blogs be timely?

Blogs aren’t news sites, though some news organizations may maintain blogs. In my opinion, it’s not necessary to keep up with current affairs through blogs.

This blog, for instance, is a miscellany of things that I find interesting, thoughts that pop up in my head, and musings over assorted potpourri. Sometimes that includes current events, but it’s not news. My finger isn’t on the pulse of the nation. I leave that to others more qualified.

Corporate blogs have a reason for keeping current, to allow for new products or services to be hyped. For better or worse, many companies are doing that.

I suppose my thoughts turn to the quality of content based on what’s happening in the news right now. I’ve had a habit of flipping between news stations (reputable and not; established and newer). The reporting is vastly different among them.

Unlike blogs, news is, by definition, current: “a report of recent events”. But similar to blogs, most news stations, if not all, heavily rely on commentary in an attempt to provide context to viewer or listener. And that’s where it can become tricky to suss out what’s accurate and what isn’t.

This is a tangent I didn’t anticpate going down, and one I’ll now likely spend more time with later on. But all of it just makes me think of this scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:

The lowest common denominator

It’s a concept you may remember from math. It is “the lowest common multiple of the denominators of a set of fractions. It simplifies adding, subtracting, and comparing fractions.”

It’s also a general term that applies to how things are grouped together, even individuals.

It’s a known adage that no two people are alike. And yet, when it comes to politics, we often try to group by party in a way that leaves no room for variance.

It’s understood that this is used for convenience. That if one person is going to be representative of the party, then that person must be representative of all within the party.

Statistics are used to maintain this belief. But statistics can be misleading, whether unintentionally, or purposefully, based on who’s providing the data and how it was collected.

But it’s simple enough to say that there are differences that become relevant the more a group is broken down. Simple enough to start with the US population of around 330 million, then break that into two parties – Republican and Democrat; approximately 30% and 40% of the voting-eligible population, respectively. Independents also come in at around 30%.

But isn’t this so simplistic? There are fifty states, 14 territories, and numerous divisions in how one may view a candidate vs. another. Even so, we break it down.

Age gaps. Voters vs. non-voters, and in most elections the US trails other developed countries in voter turnout. College-educated or those without degrees.

I don’t know that I would argue against a two-party system, as it does provide context to a political race that could otherwise become encumbered with too many candidates, and without adequate preparation mistakes could be made in voting. That’s easy to understand.

Harder to understand is the demonization of differing opinions. This race was especially venomous, and not without cause.

But the votes that came in numbered over seventy million for each of the two parties’ candidates. If no two are alike, it’s much less likely that seventy million on either side share so much in common.

But of all 140 or 150 million, I could easily see that fear plays a part. Fear of what the country may become under the opposing party’s leadership. Fear of what daily life for an individual could look like, given the changes that this country has already gone through just over the past fifty or sixty years.

And as despicable as it is, fear is a powerful tool in winning elections. That’s why attack ads are used as frequently as they are.

And I suppose that my hope is that, as elections come and go, we remember that we shouldn’t resort to finding the lowest common denominator, but rather challenge ourselves to raise up to higher levels of democracy, civility, and unity.

You are what you are

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time. This expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

-Martha Graham

When the work is finished is a laughable statement, because all creators know that the work is never finished. It is only that it was time to put it down.

The world is built on ideas that achieved not perfection, but rather separation. Separation from the creator so that it could be handled by the world itself.

There’s no guarantee an idea will be beneficial. Or well-received. Or even fully realized.

But it’s not our job to wonder at the what if. It’s our job to imagine why not.

The longest week

Look, I think everyone can agree that it’s been a tumultuous week. And I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong way to be feeling right now.

But there is certainly a right way to act. I would argue that we should act with civility. Try to remain calm and empathetic. And rather than look behind, look forward.

Yes it’s been a long week. But it was just one week. And there are a lot of weeks ahead of us.

Friday FYC

For Your Consideration

More of the interesting finds (at least for me) from this past week:

A quote this week that made me think: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” — Winston Churchill

We’re connected

It wasn’t so long ago that the world was separated by barriers both physical and personal. The distances and terrains that prevented our connection with various cultures has all but been erased in the rising of the Information Age.

Consider the Russian involvement in elections. Forty years ago, it was whispered about whether Russians were living among us. Now we accept that they can just tap into computers from a world away.

The internet has changed things, but we haven’t kept up with its potential. We’re still thinking in a 20th Century way regarding 21st Century issues. It isn’t that decisions we made in the past had no repercussions to others around the world; only now, the gap is significantly lower. It is obvious that what we do can, and likely will matter in the connected economy, social sciences, and environment.

We’re seeing the Information Age unfold before us in unimaginable ways. It’s equal parts exciting and frightening. As the technology takes shape and transforms our very lives, it’ll be exciting to see what the future will usher in.