Journalists have been getting a lot of heat recently under the new administration, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that some of that criticism is well-deserved. It seems to me, that the biggest threat to journalism currently, is journalism itself, or at least a lack of decent journalism.
We’ve spent a great portion of this past semester talking about all the ways in which a journalist should act while reporting a story, but a lot of the time, these values aren’t present in the media. Journalists often omit important information, burn bridges with sources by getting things completely wrong or act entirely unethically just to get the biggest scoop. It’s no wonder that there’s a general distrust of reporters!
But while taking shortcuts and cutting corners in reporting might help you break a story first or allow you at the juiciest details, it doesn’t make for good, respectable journalism. Journalism has a backbone in democracy and has been around for as long as anyone can remember. Let’s not ruin it by doing our jobs incorrectly.
One of the easiest fixes for inaccurate and unethical journalism is to make the process in which we report more transparent. By showing how we go about producing a story and why we’re working on it in the first place, sources will not only be more comfortable with us in general, but will most likely open up more. That way, we can still get those wanted details without being inappropriate in the ways in which we get them.
Along with transparency, it’s also important to accuracy check. God knows why this wasn’t a policy in place for my high school newspaper (It really should have been. We would have avoided so many issues!), but I’m so grateful that both The Maneater and the Columbia Missourian enforced the use of accuracy and quote checks. This policy has honestly saved me on so many occasions this semester alone. Whether it be from just mishearing what a source said or accidentally taking it out of context, everyone makes mistakes from time to time, but doing a proper accuracy check can prevent those mistakes from ever reaching the public eye. They make it so your sources don’t hate you, but they also make your work all the more credible.
Another big idea, that kind of goes along with the two points above, is to just listen. Listen to both your editor and your sources. A majority of our inaccuracies as reporters come from not listening. And with not listening, comes not understanding. We often find ourselves distracted while doing interviews, or come into a story thinking we know exactly what we want to report on. But that, just like not being transparent and not accuracy checking, can put you in a bad place as a journalist. Part of what people today complain about when it comes to journalists is that they’re not truly being heard. People will say one thing and journalists write something entirely different. From a source’s perspective, I completely understand why they might be hesitant to talk to a reporter after going through an experience such as that. Again, this is easily avoidable.
In general, the best way to avoid making journalism its own worst enemy is to just be an all-around good human being. If something seems unethical or inaccurate, it probably is. Use your common sense while out reporting. Take people’s feeling into account. We don’t always need to be the bad guys who get everyone in trouble (I know, not a very investigative journalist-y thing to say).
But just look at the United Airlines story that has recently blown up out of proportion. While sometimes in a situation such as this, it’s difficult to figure out the right thing to do, the reporters at the Courier-Journal in Louisville did not go about it in the right way. They found a juicy bit of information about the passenger’s past, and while it might have been important information to include in their story, considering their past reporting on David Dao, they surely didn’t need to shine a spotlight on it. This resulted in what seemed like victim-blaming, which only gave the Courier-Journal a bad name.
Being a decent journalist shouldn’t be as difficult as people make it out to be. Following the simple steps above works a majority of the time. How do I know? Because I’ve experienced it in my own reporting.