Responding: John Oliver on Journalism

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Earlier this week on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, Oliver addressed the dying nature of journalism. Specifically, he addressed the need for the public to recognize and pay for the hard work journalists are doing to preserve our nation’s integrity.

You can see his full segment in a Paste article here.

Now, I have been a journalist (more or less) since my junior year of high school. I was an editor for two years on my high school newspaper, The Eagle Quill, where I wrote all types of stories and really began to get behind the argument about the need for journalists in our society. There was a random fire behind our school that could have easily wiped out our baseball field and its surrounding structures. Luckily the fire department responded and it was quickly taken care of. But the question remained: how did it start? I pursued this story at a breaking news level (which really meant I only had one week to write it rather than the usual month.) That was the first time I really felt that journalists served an important purpose.

I went on to get my bachelor’s degree in journalism from Arizona State University, a school that prides itself on ethical journalism with integrity. I mean, the journalism school is named after the legendary Walter Cronkite, for christ’s sake. It’s easy to get swept up in the hype of it all when you’re there studying. I soon found a niche in long-form, magazine writing and began freelancing with a local news magazine. However, the first job I took out of college was at a small-town daily newspaper.

And this is the kind of thing Oliver’s talking about here. The paper I worked on covered three different counties on the Oregon-Idaho border, which included 7 central towns with a few outliers. We were the first line of news for our area (because the horrible and unethical news station in Boise couldn’t give less of a crap about the area unless something awful happened.) This is an area where people still read newspapers and write letters, comments and generally interact with the content. This is traditional, down-home journalism. My beat didn’t often come to the point of feeling like it was altering or extremely important. I was the public health and safety reporter, which means I wrote short stories about car crashes and fires and flu season. I covered some more important stories like this one, and tried to create conversations about touchy subjects like this one and that one. But mostly, my beat wasn’t as important as city politics (which is very true; those stories are extremely important and you can see it’s importance by simply reading headlines at our paper. I just don’t envy those reporters, I don’t think I have the patience to do it.)

So, I have a little bit of experience with this subject and would like to react/respond to Oliver’s segment.

And gosh, it’s so accurate it hurts.

First of all, I absolutely loved Spotlight. What they did in that movie is exactly what I would like to do in my journalistic career. I basically want to work on the Spotlight desk (and in Boston too!)

Now, I’ve never really run into the problem of news organizations quoting each other. All of the publications I’ve worked for have been very strict about getting our own story, doing our own work and finding our own facts. But this is an ever-growing problem within the media — more specifically broadcast media. Fair warning: I am very biased against most broadcast media. This is the perfect example of how broadcasters have allowed their ethics to fall by the wayside in favor of an easy and snappy show to put on the TV. I have even witnessed the complete abandonment of ethics when the aforementioned Boise news station chose to film teenagers who are in the middle of very high-profile criminal proceedings, after the judge said he didn’t want them to be known to preserve the process of a fair trial.

They don’t want to do the real work of journalism anymore. They have essentially reverted back to sensationalism and are using other journalists’ hard work to back them up.

But, let’s say it’s okay for them to do this (I still think it isn’t.) They won’t be able to do it for long. Oliver outlines the steady decline of print journalism, which is basically a parallel decline seen in local news. I mean, the paper I worked for was really struggling when I left, especially with the increase in minimum wage pay in Oregon. This is nothing new. Papers have been going out of business at a rapid pace for years. But now, just as my college newspaper did, many are shifting to a digital-first format that, in many cases, leads to the cessation of printing. And now, with journalists doing all their original hard work and research, they’re having to be jacks-of-all-trades.

They train you for this in journalism school. It’s required that journalism students take online media courses so they can learn more about blogging, niche reporting, using social media to promote stories, as well as photography, videography, graphic design and coding. Now, I did enjoy this in school, because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do within journalism. But it is incredibly stressful to have to write at least five full-length stories per week, with photos, videos and graphics, and promote them all across the Internet. Journalists were already stressed enough.

Did this lead to the sloppy ethics within the broadcasting arena? Maybe. And yes, I know there are some horribly unethical print journalists.  But I would argue that the sloppiness in broadcast news has reached an unacceptable level. And the unethical print journalist will probably be laid off soon anyway.

As far as investors go, they are a nightmare. I don’t envy their position because I am far from business savvy and would rather champion the return of traditional journalism we from the 50s onward. I’d even say we should return to typewriters, but I do love my computer too much. (Which is another question: if we have these amazing devices, why is it so hard to research and call people to get your own facts?) But the problem is that investors are always slightly corrupt or narrow-minded. And then we get more sloppy ethics.

The bottom line is: the news is important, and you need to care about it. And I mean real news, from the newspapers covering where you live and the things that effect you. First, you need to find an outlet from which you will get your news (I would recommend a newspaper, but if you would like a local news station that’s fine too.) Second, you have to get past your frustrations over paying for the content if need be. This is really not that big of a deal. You are paying to read and see the best journalism being produced today — and let me tell you, once you see it, you’ll understand. You’ll get angry, you’ll get sad, you’ll be moved to action. And then you’ll understand. But in order to have all of that happen, you need to pay a minimum fee. I really don’t think it’s too much to ask.

And if you think it is, consider this: While you are reading about cute dogs and whatever Kylie Jenner is doing with her lips, your City Council is using the taxes you pay to buy new houses and cars while also jacking up the price of utilities and eliminating valuable community resources like food pantries and libraries.

Okay, this might be a bit extreme. But if we keep going the way we are, it won’t be. If journalists don’t keep the people in power in check, you are looking at a city rife with corruption and everything that comes with. Journalists are telling you about this stuff everyday while also helping to keep it at bay. Are you listening?

Where do you get your news? What are your views on ethics in both print and broadcast journalism? How can local journalism maintain its integrity in an ever-evolving digital world? Let’s talk.

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