Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Why do journalists do what they do?

Why do journalists do what they do?

In September 2003, I was at a media conference where Dr. Jack Hamilton, Dean of the Louisiana State University Manship School of Mass Communication, gave a presentation entitled, "Why Journalists Do What They Do."

Hamilton is recipient of the 2003 Freedom Forum Journalism Administrator of the Year Award and a former reporter for the Milwaukee Journal, People, the Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times Magazine and ABC Radio, among others. As a foreign correspondent, he had assignments in more than 50 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. In addition, he has written numerous books, including Hold the Press: The Inside Story on Newspapers.

During his 45-minute presentation, Hamilton gave three major criticisms of the news media. One was that journalists do a poor job of covering news that stays the same.

“For example, how many stories have you seen about the number of safe airplane landings? Instead, the news media focuses on events where something goes wrong and this results in a tendency toward negative news,” Hamilton said.

Instead, reporters tend to focus on what is changing, not on what is staying the same. In doing so, they sometimes miss the real story.

“For example, when China opened their economy that made news, but what stayed the same -- China is still communist -- may be the most important part of that story,” said Hamilton.

Second, Hamilton wonders why the trend is for journalists to hide behind “objective journalism” in order to say what they are doing is not about selling papers. Historically, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Newspaper publishers who wanted to sell more newspapers -- not high-minded academics or reporters who were pursuing an improved ethic -- dreamed up the ideal and practice of objective journalism,” said Hamilton.

U.S. journalism has gone through many phases. At first, the government licensed the press, and then it became independent and aggressive during the revolutionary war. These phases impacted the way in which reporting was done.

In the first phase, the purpose was simply to sell more newspapers. So, American newspapers printed news taken from overseas newspapers (this wouldn't get you in trouble with the British government). Then came the Stamp Act which hit newspapers in the pocket book.

At this point, American newspapers began to develop as two different strains, a partisan press (supported by political groups) and a commercial press (elite but fact based).

Then came James Gordon Bennett and the penny press. He provided news driven by what people wanted to read in a “one size fits all package.” He also discovered that crime news was very interesting, well read and cheap to get.

“This discovery caused objective news reporting to begin leading the way because it sold more newspapers,” said Hamilton.

Newspapers also discovered early on the need to keep readers “by making the news.” For example, press conferences are designed to make news. And sometimes, according to Hamilton, interviews and investigations became ways to make news.

“One of the earliest examples of this was when Mr. Stanley (a newspaper reporter) was sent to find Dr. Livingston in Africa. His travels and search was an early example of making the news and reporting it,” said Hamilton.

Because of Stanley's success, and the discovery that exploration trips and adventure stories sold newspapers, more and more news outlets started funding adventure trips.

“Soon, journalists were learning how to make the news and publishers were finding that if you provided factual news you could make even more money,” said Hamilton.

Not long after this phase, journalists decided they didn't want to be compromised so most newsrooms became separate from ad sales and they developed their own rules of ethics.

"But objective journalism developed because reporters didn’t' want to think they were selling newspapers, but in fact, that is what they have been doing all along," said Hamilton.

And finally, Hamilton thinks the news media needs help, especially from academics and professional communicators.

“Not even the casual observer can fail to notice that the media are unsure of themselves. They are grappling with new media technologies, with greater public ownership of their enterprises, with political interests that have become highly effective at manipulating communication, and with an increasingly distrustful audience,” said Hamilton.

As a result, Hamilton thinks media scholars and critics are more important than ever in designing best practices and ending bad ones. He believes someone needs to be critically assessing the professional standards that underpin media and shape its discourse.

“Journalism is too important to be left to journalists alone. Scholars must look over their shoulders. If journalism teachers and academics and practicing journalists do not do this, shame on us. We not only concede strength, but also an obligation,” said Hamilton.

The Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press noted in the late 1940s that “no public service was more important than the service of communications.” It also pointed out that the freedom to perform that service was fragile. “The press itself,” the commission concluded, “is always one of the chief agents in destroying or building the bases of its own significance.”


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