Monday, November 7, 2011

New Hope for Journalism

Below you will find further reflections on The Elements of Journalism, this time from Bryce Lungren.  He considers the meaning of journalism and how his reading has shaped his reporting.  Bryce Lungren:

Over the last decade, my trust in secular news outlets has all but dried up.  Whether it was on TV, in the paper, or on the radio, I always took news I heard with a grain of salt.  I thought that all reporters had some kind of agenda they were pushing.  I had begun to lose hope that accurate honest journalism was still possible in this seemingly unethical modern world.  After reading the first half of The Elements of Journalism (TEJ) by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, however, I am starting to see the dawn of a new, more truthful day in the field of journalism.  This book has inspired me to know the foundational ethical principles for accurate, honest reporting, and to put them into practice by engaging the culture through journalism.

"What is the purpose of journalism?" is really not a question I had ever thought of before.  Today, the news is quite easy to come by.  With the internet it is rather instantaneous.  Journalism must have a more important role in society that just keeping people up to date.  TEJ reports that the "primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing" (Kovach 12).  I found this very enlightening.  Journalism's intent should not be to try and shape the opinion of the public; it should provide accurate facts of a situation and allow people to judge for themselves.  In doing so, journalists help form a self-governed society.

Bryce Lungren
I think there was a part of me that wanted to use the media to retaliate to the kind of indoctrinating reporting I have experienced in the past.  With an opinion forming tactic of my own, but one that was right of course, I had a kind of eye-for-an-eye mentality.  With this new insight into the purpose of journalism, however, I see that a reporter should let the truth speak for itself.  It has been freeing for me to know that journalism is not about how I view the situation; it is about letting the situation present itself in the light of the actual facts.

This could be a challenging aspect of reporting for Mount Angel Seminary and the Catholic Church because some topics we deal with are controversial in the public arena, such as abortion.  In our eyes this is a cut and dry issue; abortion is always wrong.  It is also a topic that the secular news presents in a very biased light and is often inaccurate with their facts.  They often try to highlight pro-life movements as being fanatical.  It could be easy to retaliate by writing an article that is antagonistic toward those who do not share our same opinions; for example, we could us language that is hostile toward those with different viewpoints than ours.  The proper route to take is to present the honest accurate facts about the given situation and let the truth speak for itself.

After studying modern philosophy, I wondered if there was any profession in the secular world that still believed in objective truth.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that "journalism's first obligation is to the truth" (Kovach 36).  This is not a philosophical stance; it is just about getting the facts right.  I found this dedication to truth to be very refreshing.  After writing my first story, however, I learned that the truth does not always come easy.  Once I felt that my first story was ready to turn in, I emailed it to the person I interviewed to get their comments.  Upon doing so I was informed that I had two pieces of information incorrectly stated.  To say the least, I was quite embarrassed and humbled.  I went back through my transcripts of the interview and, sure enough, the correct information was there; I had just overlooked it.  I learned that truth should not be taken for granted and accurate reporting will always be a challenge.

In the chapter on verification, TEJ enlisted a section on humility.  The basic point that was made was not to trust your own judgment of the circumstances.  Whether we know it or not, we are all coming from our own set of beliefs, and these beliefs cloud the way we perceive things.  It is always important to get other people's take on a story, especially if it is dealing with content we are unfamiliar with.

I thought of another example where one needs to practice humility in journalistic writing.  When I started to write my first story, in the back of my mind I was trying to make my own voice and writing style stand out in a way that I would be noticed, as opposed to the content I was presenting.  That is basically one of the underlying elements that TEJ is trying to get away from.  It is not about the writer; it is about the information they are trying to convey.  If journalists are in this business for self interest or even the interest of the company they work for before the public, they have violated one of the principle elements of journalism: "Journalism's first loyalty is to citizens" (Kovach 52).  Journalists, myself included, need to decrease so that the information can increase.

Reading through The Elements of Journalism and doing some writing on my own has both enlightened and humbled me with the responsibilities good journalism requires.  I had formerly thought that there was little hope that the field of journalism would regain the integrity it once had.  I now feel inspired to know the foundational ethical principles to accurate, honest reporting, and how to put them into practice by engaging the culture through journalism.

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