Phil’s Note: This was written several weeks prior to posting when I decided to start blogging again…unfortunately it was written just before life got very crazy with the Oklahoma natural disasters so posting was delayed.
Recently I gave a lecture to some aspiring college journalists. One of the first things I started out with was asking all the aspiring reporters to raise their hands. Then I asked who in the room wanted to be a journalist. I hope these kids were able to full grasp what I was telling them. I am not sure I did or could have when I was there age. Though, to be honest, there wasn’t a lot you could teach college Phil when his mind was made up about something.
The point of my questions was to say that there a lot of reporters in the world who are not journalists and a lot of journalists who aren’t reporters. Some of the best journalists I know (coming from my TV news perspective) have been assignment editors, producers and photographers. Those are people you will never see on TV and you will likely never know their names. Yet these journalists do a job because they love it and are dedicated to the craft. On the other hand there will be plenty of reporters you will meet who are just that…reporters. They don’t necessarily care about journalism…I am fortunate to have not worked with many like this and most of the reporters I’ve worked with care deeply about the calling of journalism.
Journalism is a calling. It is hard to realize this in this day and age when journalism is blamed for everything. We are either too conservative or too liberal. If you don’t agree with us we obviously didn’t do our research and we’re not to be trusted. I don’t believe this to be the truth. Not on the local level. I am not writing to make a political point or even talk about national news networks. I just hate being lumped into any stereotype.
I had a judge once tell me that he understood that I just needed a story no matter what the fact were. I stopped him and told him how disrespectful that was because that was like me telling him he was an ambulance chaser because he was once a lawyer. Journalists seek the truth, but the truth is not just what you want it to be. Journalists present both sides, you can’t call me a liar because I presented a viewpoint that you disagreed with and didn’t just air one side of an argument. And you most certainly call me a hack if your side failed to stand up to the serious questions I wanted to ask.
Yes there is a place for journalism in TV news. In fact, if news is to survive we need more journalists. I’ve seen the TV news industry change, even in my lifetime, from hard news to soft features and now I see the pendulum evening out and even trending more towards hard news again. A dedication to holding public officials accountable and following tax dollars are again popular topics. I am lucky to work for a company that puts an emphasis on these things.
But journalism is not as easy as it was for the heroes of the early days of news gathering. Those true broadcast pioneers did have to fight off the past shadows from the time of “yellow journalism.” They also had to battle powerful politicians who could have destroyed them personally and professionally. But they also had the undivided attention of a nation hungry for news.
Today news has to be entertaining. That is not to undermine what we do, but we have to focus on storytelling, compelling pictures and characters. It is difficult. We have to present investigations in ways that the average person will want to watch. It is not enough for us to tell you what’s important we now have to find ways to make the public care about what’s truly important. Sometimes that means being silly, sometimes that means being confrontational…I like to think of it as the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down (I stole that line from Mary Poppins).
I hope the industry doesn’t die. Not just because it would mean I would be out of a job, but because it would mean that the country and our communities would lose so much. There need to be watchdogs. There needs to be someone who asks the tough questions. We need journalists.