When journalists hate journalism...
By Robert Niles
Living in Los Angeles, I've discovered that the biggest movie fans anywhere are the people who work in the film industry. (Okay, I've also heard
many times the easy joke about them having plenty of time to see movies, 'cause so many of them are usually out of work.) But you can find the same
affinity in many fields. My wife is a professional violinist, and her music industry friends have the largest CD and MP3 collections I've ever seen -
and not just classical, but rock, pop, jazz, blues, funk and show tunes, too.
So you'd think that journalists would be the biggest news hounds around. For the most part, you'd be right. I was talking with some of my Annenberg
colleagues at a journalism conference last month, and one asked how many hours a day we each spent reading and watching the news, whether in print,
online or on TV. The consensus? About four to five hours a day.
But there is one exception to this potential rule: Many journalists despise TV news. They hate watching it, they hate producing it, and, given the
opportunity, they turn it off and ignore it.
My journalism students this semester went off on this topic in class one day, raging about the rigid format, the simplistic reporting and cynicism
that they found in TV news reports.
I had assigned my students to produce a multisource, multimedia feature story on a topic of their choice. Several incorporated video segments, and the
influence on these students' video storytelling was clear. So I asked them about it.
It wasn't the evening news. It wasn't cable TV.
"Daily Show," one said.
"Colbert Report," added another.
"The Onion," one said, as heads nodded around the room.
Just as I suspected. Why not local and cable TV news, I asked?
My students complained about the titillation - fear-mongering crime reports, salacious coverage of the entertainment industries, reporters and anchor
people glammed up to look like models. And when TV reports covered more serious issues, including politics, they result as little more than propaganda
- talking points served up from two sides, with no analysis testing the claims, beyond petty insults.
The broadcast majors among them expressed their revulsion at moving into an industry where "good television" meant insults, violence and conflict,
rather than information, engagement and enlightenment.
Many also complained about the strict format that they were being instructed to follow in their broadcast classes, in order to make their reports
appear more "professional," i.e. like the TV news that many of them despised. But I found it interesting that, when given the freedom to do whatever
they wanted with news video online (which, by the way, every member of the class said that they loved), most did cling to a standard formula in
producing their spots.
It just wasn't the six-o'-clock news formula, it was the sarcastic, tough-in-cheek formula of cable TV news satire. That's to be expected, I
suppose. In college, one of my English professors suggested that all literature writers start with satire, to learn to poke fun at and "undo"
others' conventions before developing and exploring their own.
I see another parallel in my students' experience this semester - with community, grassroots and social media journalism online. The message that I
heard from my students and from people I have met in dozens of online communities is similar - they are fed up with traditional journalism narratives
and conventions, especially ones that emphasize conflict without resolution.
But, even as they reject those conventions, they still need some formula within which to express themselves. They either unable or unwilling yet to
devote the effort to create a new convention for news communication. So they're willing to follow others that get them closer to what they want to
For my students, it's Jon Stewart, et al. - people who are willing to challenge sources aggressively, to use video evidence to point out when sources
are lying (QuickTime clip) and, through satire, to try to reveal a truth, rather than leave two sides simply to shout at one another. As one student
said, "I want my work to say something."
Online, readers want easy-to-use discussion forums and communities where people can ask, and answer, questions, where leadership is present to keep
discussions civil and informative, and where the tone is less "gotcha" and more "got your back."
As the competition between online and offline news media intensifies, news producers would do well to remember that some of what's driving the change
in the news market is not simply a preference for one medium over another, it is a desire to reject the conventions behind news production as
practiced in some "old" media.
Heck, if journalists can't stand the stuff that some newsrooms are producing, how can we expect anyone else to want it?