Monday, December 21, 2009

A Christmas Reminder: The Gift of the Free Press

Who says newspapers are irrelevant? Recently, I asked 17 college journalism students (ages 19-21) an admittedly leading question: why do we need newspapers? Or why does the Free Press matter?  (Full disclosure: the question was on an exam at the end of an academic semester.) I think their responses, though, are worth sharing. They were as insightful as they were informative, healthy reminders of the role journalism plays in a media-saturated age:

“The biggest check on government power is a well informed citizenry. Newspapers, ideally being comprehensive in depth and committed to truth, provide us with the tools to self govern and check those in power.”—Jake

“The first way to destroy democracy and kill the citizens’ freedom and sovereignty is by suppressing the press.”—Jessica

“Nothing beats the weight of a real paper in your hand. Sentimentality aside, however, a local community in particular benefits from a consistent and experienced voice regularly arriving at their doorstep reporting the day’s happenings.”—Erika

“We need newspapers to expose us to the corruption in mental hospitals, understand the truth about Vietnam and see what really happened inside Watergate. Without the free press we lose a piece of democracy because we lose the freedom to know the truth.”—Natalie

“The free press matters because it gives people the ability to bring change . . . and makes others around the world aware so that citizens can be involved in fighting injustices.”—Michelle

“We need newspapers because we need a voice for the voiceless and an independent monitor of power. [During the Civil Rights Movement] the media exposed the racial atrocities occurring in the South to the rest of the nation and world.”—Katie

“Without news, we as humans lack essential connections and awareness outside of ourselves. If we did not have the ability to voice our opinions and hear those of others, I believe we would be trapped, manipulated and would eventually lose hope.”—Heather

“Without instances like the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate and even our current war, when the government is doing things that are unjust, unpopular or just plain wrong, the people ought to know. This is what the free press delivers: it hands democracy to the people and informs them to make a difference.”—Deborah

“Newspapers, and especially local ones, provide a way for a community to be self-governing like no other outlet can.”—Alysa

“Citizens (as well as journalists) should search for truth, not simply that which reinforces their opinion.”—Naomi

“A newspaper sheds light on the powers that be and only a free press can do this.”—Steven

A small local paper gives people a trusted and consistent voice, which is both a comfort and a source of confidence in the things they know. It enables a different, more thought out dialogue than an online forum, though both venues have their value.”—Amanda

“Newspapers dispel ignorance and provide security for citizens who need to undersand what is happening around them.”—Allison

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Times Square Meets the Media

When I lived in New York, I often avoided Times Square. It's easily the most crowded part of the city, largely because of tourists. Which also makes it the slowest. Meaning, tourists stroll through the urban spectacle, gawking at the monster ads that loom over 42nd Street because they've never seen anything like it. And at first glance, there is something eery about its power. The sheer size can be captivating. So much so that without much thought, standing in Times Square, seeing all the glitz, can make any tourist feel, well, a part of something bigger, grander. Suddenly, their lives—which perhaps they viewed as insignificant— feel important. It's as if watching the barrage of commercial 'stories' on huge lighted billboards provides new meaning. And they belong. No matter how absurd or shallow the messages that rope them in.

These last few weeks, the news media has felt a lot like Times Square. From the balloon-boy farce and White House crashing couple to the lines wanting Sarah Palin's autograph and crowds wanting Tiger Woods' details, every where, it seems, is a massive story of wanting to belong. An inventor dad wants recognition, a suburban pair clamors for inclusion, supporters want Sarah because "She's just like me" and sports fans want confessions. As if they're entitled to know. As if they're friends. As if their lives won't count without the attention.

Times Square is one thing—one massive commercial, to be exact. Journalism is quite another. Its role is to inform, not distract. To report news, not create it. So I'm disappointed that lately we know more about book tours and golf stars than we do Afghanistan or senate debates (in Massachusetts). We have to look hard for details on hungry and poor kids in the U.S. and even harder for the stories about real statesmen who care for their constituents so much they practice integrity in their leadership.

I understand that celebrity-ism has long fascinated the masses, and made the masses crave it for themselves. But really. With so many great tools available today, couldn't we be spending a lot more time looking at the things that matter, and don't just sell? Couldn't some visionary journalists pursue the scoops that offer genuine meaning, not just stories that reflect the billboards?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Giving to the Next Generation of Reporters

Recently, I watched (again) the Russell Crowe movie that came out last year, "State of Play." The film is really a memorial to the state of journalism, to the need for local reporters to monitor the powers that be, to ensure democracy, to verify every detail of every story in order to provide the public the information they need to make their own decisions about the truth of those who represent them. Or are suppose to. It's an intense big-city story set in the backdrop of the halls of Congress, but the real inspiration of the film was not the Hollywood-ized version of investigative political journalism. The real inspiration reminded me of something I've seen time and again in my own community north of Boston.

Here's what I mean: Russell Crowe's character—a tough but nice enough veteran reporter—took on a young cub and mentored her through one of the biggest and most important stories their paper ever published. This mentorship theme in the film might have emerged for me because I was watching it with young journalists. But I think it really came straight out of our local communities.

Last month, for instance, a veteran reporter from the Salem News dropped by my journalism class to interview students for a story (and show 'em how it's done) as well as offer encouragement for the "best job in the world." (Thanks, Steve!) A local editor for a weekly visited our class two weeks ago and gave them a sort of Top 10 list of do's and don'ts for writing in a way that serves the public. (Thanks, Dan!) Today, another editor from the local daily gave the next generation of journalists more good reasons to keep going, to pursue truth and in so doing, to offer measured—not sensationalistic—coverage of important issues. (Thanks, Dave!)

And I know of other young journalists this fall who have called, e-mailed or visited award-winning reporters and editors in their newsrooms to pick their brains. Whether a Globe reporter, a magazine editor, a television anchor, all of these professionals took time out of their demanding schedules to answer questions from aspiring reporters. By so doing, I'm convinced their generosity is ensuring good reporting in the future. Because every time they engage a young person, they're investing in the truly noble work of journalism—one that is mutually beneficial and equally inspiring. That's fruit that will last long after the credits roll.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Real Color of News

Last week while getting my urban fix in New York City, I stepped into a church a block from Times Square. The doors were wide open and this sign ("Sinners Repaint") was posted at the aisle. And I confess, the sign—not the stained glass or the cathedral ceiling—grabbed my attention.

I was impressed by its creativity and though the parish leaders probably only hoped to raise renovation funds, I couldn't help but take up its cause. I'd been troubled by the recent media obsessions with non-stories (flying hoaxes, slimy talk show hosts) and more troubled still by the blatant ideologies behind which many television stations hide in the name of ratings, playing to party lines that reinforce what people want to hear (as opposed to what's true). So I decided this nifty little sign could indeed be a call to today's journalists to get back to the business of painting the truth as it is, not as a prop for an agenda. I know there are thousands of reporters out there doing good work but the corporate execs who run the Fox 'news' shows, the MSNBC's or CNN's of the world, too often slather on a lot more color than story, burying the truth beneath distracting hype. 

Granted, no news can be 100 percent biased-free. It's impossible, because the folks who write and report it are full of opinions and experiences that have shaped their perspectives. We all are. It's the lens through which we view the world. Even so, journalists—by definition of the vocation—are required to lay aside as best they can their values and views to get at the truth for the good of the people they serve. The methodology of reporting, then, actually can be  more objective than the reporter himself, even in television. (Think Murrow or Amanapour.) But the second any professional journalist reveals his position, he knows (or used to anyway) he's got a credibility problem. It's called: conflict of interest. 

In other words, citizens don't need to know what a reporter believes or what political party she subscribes to in order to a make sense of the details and information the reporter has provided in a story. Which means, we don't need to know that the president of Fox news is a staunch supporter of the Republican party (recent 'reports' have linked him as a possible presidential candidate). In fact, I'm worried about any news outlet that publicly promotes its colors. (Don't we cringe when we hear of ideologically-driven media in other countries controlled by political or government thugs?) When it happens here, and it does every time we flick on the television set, the lines become blurrier for citizens who already struggle to discern truth from opinion, fact from agenda. And that's dangerous for a culture which relies on news like an artist does his muse.

So we need to roll up our sleeves and repaint our newsrooms with truth—not slogans. Or at the very least, find the sources that still value truth—not agenda—as the real color of the news.

Monday, October 12, 2009

In Defense of the Prize(s)

What an irony that the recent announcement of this year's Nobel Peace Prize has created such a war of words. Between the canons shot across various Web sites and blogs, the bombs dropped in countless opinion columns, and the bullets shot from thousands of Tweets, the online news world is experiencing a 21st century battle of sentences and exclamation marks. Again. It was too early, many say, and too ridiculous; or too exciting, too cool, too soon or too hard to live up to; between the soldiers of campaigns, the bloggers with agendas, the professional reporters and the engaged citizens bent on adding to the barrage, all have pulled the pin of a grenade and tossed it online.

I, for one, couldn't be happier. At the discussion, that is. Such explosive discourse is the stuff of free speech and democracy after all. We need it. We need to challenge opinions, argue points, investigate new territory. Each step on the battlefield helps us decide for ourselves and come to our own conclusions about how we, too, can work for peace in our own worlds and spheres of influence, that is, if we can actually decipher the authentic discussion beneath the attacks.

Still, for all the digital combat about President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, I wonder if another bias is behind the rhetoric. Is it more about utilitarian functionality than character? Does it reveal a preference for the ends while ignoring the means? Put another way, does all this angst say more about how Americans are addicted to end results with little regard for process? What has he done, for Pete's sake, we ask? Not what has he been.

Is it too simplistic to consider if the new president has promoted global peace—simply by being new or by having the same skin color as many of the world's population or by using his gift of language to inspire anew? Which brings us full circle in this war of words: Isn't peace-making as much about challenging perceptions and attitudes as it is about ending wars?

Then again, maybe all this smoke had nothing to do with the Nobel selection. Maybe the naysayers just wanted another reason to toss their grenades. At which point, the prize of genuine discourse gets blown to pieces. So much for world peace.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

When Hard News Gets Too . . . Hard

This is Bob's car. It's parked next to his garden and his 100 year old house, which you can't see here but I'll report to you that it's in need of a paint job. Bob—who is 87 years old—lives just around the corner from my husband and me, and only has so much time and energy these days for a couple of things that matter to him. Painting isn't one of them. But his award-winning dahlias are; he grows them every year and enters them in the Topsfield Fair. They're glorious flowers, and it's not hard to figure out why he wins (and why he neglects his house).

Bob also makes time for visits everyday; he climbs into his funny little Chrysler box car, drives about a 150 yards, parks and then hobbles up the steps to visit our neighbor Mary, who's 92. (She insists they're just friends.) Bob's mission is quick and simple: he's delivering bananas that were on sale, or soup he made for Mary and his brother, or a sandwich. She opens the door to greet him, he talks about the news (I can hear them from my porch across the street). They exchange food and health reports and then he turns to his car to drive the 150 yards back to his dahlias and brother. It's a five minute story I watch regularly. I can't help myself.

This past week I also read about other stories: the horrors of Sumatra's earthquake; U.S. unemployment climbing to 10 percent; Samoa's tsunami devastating villages; and young American teens gunned down in 'can't make sense of it' violence. There are health care concerns dividing our country, increasing casualties in Afghanistan, and rising suicides in western countries like France and England linked to economic woes. Maybe there's more than one reason it's called hard news. And you don't have to search very long—on Internet sites or broadcast programs or in the paper—to find it. I'm glad to have such immediate access these days to the events that happen daily beyond my neighborhood.

But some days, I could use more stories like Bob's. I suspect we all could. Not that the others aren't crucial to know. They are. And technology has made news more accessible to us than ever, shaping our roles and responsibilities as global citizens. Still, the view from the porch is equally important. It links me back to the stories around me, to the dahlias which can soften even the hardest of news—especially when they're just around the corner, like this one in Bob's front yard.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Most Important Address in Washington, D.C. (Hint: It's Not What You Might Think)

Washington, D.C.—555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W. That address, I think, is the most important one in our nation's capital. Because you can literally see the Capitol from the sixth floor of the 555 building, and because the White House is on the other end of Pennsylvania (at 1600 N.W.), you can rule both out as most important, though obviously each is significant in shaping our culture and governing our communities. There are the other great addresses of inspiration: the museums and monuments and congressional offices. But 555 is a place where the First Amendment to the Constitution literally scrolls down the side of the building, reminding passers-by of the five freedoms those other places of government are committed to preserving: speech, religion, press, assembly and petition—freedoms, we all know they (as in government officials) don't always get right.

Which brings us to 555, home of the Newseum, the country's first museum dedicated entirely to those gatekeepers of culture, those watchdogs of government, those voices for the voiceless: journalists. For anyone interested in journalism as either a doer of it or a citizen dependent on it, the Newseum inspires, challenges and instructs at the same time. Yes, it's interactive, fun and enormously creative. But it also provides the news from around the world everyday in its amazing rotation of daily front pages. Its history section gives clues to the perils and sacrifices made throughout the centuries to bring the news to people, to protect their freedoms, to expose injustices or to report the stories that matter to their lives. Its various memorials—whether to modern reporters who've been killed for pursuing the truth or to standard setters in early journalism—are enough to make even the hardened cynic appreciate the role journalism plays for each of us.

This place, with all its artifacts, films and exhibits, matters. When I visited again last week, I realized its importance anew as I sat next to a fifth grader on a field trip while we waited for a movie to start. Her black braids shot off her head, her enthusiasm spilled over her seat into mine. Before the 4D film began (and we weren't wearing the funny glasses) I asked her if she wanted to be a reporter. "Yeah, I think that'd be so cool," she said, a grin on her face nearly as wide as the Potomac. The movie started and she marveled—quite exuberantly I might add—more than anyone in the cinema. And when the credits rolled, she told me that was "awesome." I told her I hoped to read her byline someday and advised her to always tell the truth in her stories. She seemed confused. "Of course. What else would I tell?" she asked.

So if a place like the Newseum can inspire the next—and current—generation of reporters in an age when the industry could use vibrant reminders of its critical role, then I don't care how much or how long the place took to build (and much has been made by the nay sayers and cynics). I'm convinced, unashamedly: This is the most important address in Washington because it could affect so many other addresses in years to come.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Making Unity Sexy: A Challenge to Today's Reporters

Conflict, we know, is the sexy stuff of storytelling. If it bleeds, it leads, say the editors. Tension lures in readers, takes us on a journey that keeps us glued to the set so that we'll hang in there till the end. After all, we don't watch action-adventure flicks to know how they'll end; we watch to see how the hero will get out of each pickle.

Little wonder then that reporters today cover the fringes as primary stories. The finger pointing, the opposite perspectives, the marginalizing—and hence the polarizing—seem to make for more interesting copy. It's sexy. So one day we get, for instance, full coverage of the folks on the Right who think the folks on the Left are nuts because of health care reform; the next day we get coverage of leaders from the Left who think the folks on the Right are nuts because of, well, how they view health care reform. And as a result, it spills over into town halls, rallies and marches until it erupts into screaming and shouting . . . that again makes for good stories, but does little to help us appreciate our diversity.

Surely, though, people somewhere are having conversations beyond their narrow Right and Left opinions. Surely some political leaders are reaching across the aisle, genuinely trying to consider how they can work together. Surely unity—somehow, somewhere—is happening.

Why, then, don't we hear many of these stories? Why don't we read the "Against All Odds" tales of folks who, in spite of their differences, agree to keep the conversation going because they know they'll be better off as human beings for listening to different perspectives? I'm certain they're out there.

So this is my challenge to reporters everywhere: PLEASE find the stories of the folks who are as determined to shake hands with others who might see things differently as the pundits are to polarize. The conversations these brave folks are having, who dare to work together, must certainly provide important insights for the rest of us who are tired of the polarizing and finger pointing. Please, Mr. and Ms. Journalist, give us the stories we need to better understand each other's perspective on issues (especially) like health care, and the economy, and so on, so that we'll make some progress toward civility and grace, the stuff that makes nations great. The stuff that unifies.

Surely, that's a story all of us would read, one that's essential and sexy, and most importantly, life-changing.

Friday, September 11, 2009

60 Years of Wisdom . . . in a Couple Conversations

Minneapolis, MN—I'm at the 60th anniversary conference of the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA), a smart and gracious group of about 160 (in attendance) professional reporters who have the audacity to believe that religion as a beat still matters. That's no small thing. When the general media is laying off or reassigning veteran religion reporters (the RNA president mentioned in his welcome address that he'd heard of two religion reporters in the last 24 hours who'd lost their jobs), it's encouraging to find journalists here who still recognize the far reaching implications and roles that belief systems play in shaping a culture. After all, everyone believes something. And most of the time, our behaviors come out of what we most believe. So to cover the stories that emerge from the world's major religions either in our towns or trends is an essential service to citizens. Religion reporting helps people make sense of current issues as well as the individuals in their communities, their neighbors.
     So I asked (or eavesdropped on) a couple reporters or speakers here about the insights they might have for new journalists, for those entering the field that is requiring different skills while still reporting the human elements we need to be self governing. Here's what a few said:

   "The pay is low, but don't fear the small town newspaper. That's where you get thrown into the action right away, covering everything from city hall or education to small businesses. Be willing to learn, because often you're learning with your editor. That's what I did."—William Taylor, assistant editor, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, LA;
    "In covering a recent and troubling story here (on the disappearance of Somalian young men) I began to see that this was revealing something much more complex than what appeared on the surface: many young men were wondering where—or how—they fit into U.S. culture. There's always something more behind the story."—Allie Shah, metro reporter of the Minneapolis Star Tribune;
     "I've found the news media generally very fair on their coverage (of religious issues). In fact, I've had more difficulty with the press within my own denomination than those outside." —Dr. Frank Page, President of Southern Baptist and "resident fundamentalist Christian (his words)" on President Obama's council of faith based initiatives;
     "Learn everything you can about new ways of doing journalism while also mastering the traditional methods of reporting. That means being the best writer/reporter you can be, asking the right questions, checking the facts, being accurate and fair so that you have the best content to fit into these new media. What do I love about reporting? Talking to fascinating people and then sharing their thoughts/stories with others. There's nothing like a goooood interview!"—Adelle Banks, senior correspondent, Religion News Service. (That's Adelle in the photo preparing her recorder, computer ready for note taking.)
     So there's good stuff to be gained in the community of such wisdom. It comes in many lectures, conferences and mostly, conversations. And it comes always in paying attention. Remembering to observe, especially this day, Sept. 11, how religion reporting took on another new and essential role. As one who lived in New York City in 2001, I offer you my own reporting from that day: The End of the World (Trade Center), posted on 9/11/01.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What Diane Can't Tell Me

Last week journalism history was made . . . again. Diane Sawyer was named to replace Charles Gibson on the ABC Nightly News, making her only the second woman to anchor a national television news program, and making this the first time when women anchored two of the three networks. As a woman reporter myself, I'm glad for what this signals, knowing how difficult it has been for women in what has been traditionally a male-dominated vocation. And though I'm sure Ms. Sawyer's qualities as a serious journalist were part of the decision behind her promotion—just as the same would have been true for Katie Couric and Brian Williams in their respective roles—I doubt I'll tune in much to her coverage.
     Why? Simple. National television news programs can't deliver for me much of what I'm mostly interested: local stories. Yes, they could give me quick pieces of international or domestic stories, news I should know to be a thoughtful and engaged citizen. But I'm more likely to look to online news outlets for those stories, to get more details than a sound byte can offer in the limited—but still important—time constraints of television news. More to the point, I'll look to the local newspapers to tell me about my community. Case in point: on Labor Day, I took a lovely stroll through my small town of Beverly, Massachusetts. I passed the Commons and saw the dog-bone installation of enormous metal sculptures. I smiled at the children playing on the 'dogs' and at the parents scratching their heads at the playfulness of the art. Around the corner I noticed a teepee in the backyard of a house, friends gathered around it  grilling for some holiday cooking. I immediately understood both 'stories' I walked by because I'd read them in the local paper. In other words, I connected more to my own community because of the local coverage I'd picked up in the print stories. And that's something no national news anchor can offer.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Moving from Print to Screen: When the College Newspaper Evolves

I knew it was inevitable. Still, when I learned from colleagues that the student newspaper at the college where we work would soon be published entirely online, I was sad. After 50 years of a weekly print paper—sometimes late, always with errors, usually an interesting gauge of what college students deemed newsworthy in their community—I mourned a bit. I confess: I liked the feel of the paper in my hands. I liked hunting it down on campus just to find the thing (consistent distribution was not a strength of college students). And I liked flipping the pages to see bylines of my students. I'd skim over the stories, sometimes with a roll of the eyes, often sighing from the sheer youthfulness of the content. But once in a while—maybe once or twice a month—there was that moment when I was caught, pulled in by a compelling lede, shown some details that made me pause in admiration and then look away for a second to think, really think, about the story I'd just read. Those moments made me proud. Of the student reporter who 'got' it. Of the immediacy of the moment when my fingers touched paper (not a computer), and of the long and difficult and enormously powerful tradition of print newspapers to connect a community. Those moments reminded me of the value of the profession, even when novices took it on. And of the human interaction that spilled over each issue I'd had to hunt down and pick up and thumb through, the paper version I could carry with me on my bike or to the classroom. Please don't get me wrong: I'm sure this online version will build community too. Somehow. Just as I'm sure it will be relevant and newsworthy and reflective of our high-tech students. But as I scroll over the electronic pages of its new version, I suspect I'll still roll my eyes every now and then or swell with occasional sense of pride. Something in me, though, will feel all the more grateful for the archive in the College library, the one that houses those musty old student newspapers which show how life used to be on campus.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Costliness of Truth

At its essence, journalism cherishes truth as its first and most critical pursuit. A good reporter—for all her limits and flaws—will dig and dig until she has a sense of the truth of a story. If she gets it right, she can invite both praise and criticism. What thugs, after all, want to be found out? But that is what drives us, what motivates our need to know. In fact, from their ground-breaking book, The Element of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, authors Bill Kovach & Tom Rosenstiel say this: "This basic desire for truthfulness is so powerful, the evidence suggests it is innate. 'In the beginning was the Word' is the opening line of the Gospel of St. John in the New Testament. The earliest journalists—messengers in preliterate societies—were expected to recall matters accurately and reliably, partly out of need. Often the news these messengers carried was a matter of survival. The chiefs needed accurate word about whether the tribe on the other side of the hill might attack."
Yes, it costs to pursue the truth; it costs time, safety and often reputations. It can even be dangerous, as we know from the hundreds of journalists worldwide who risk their lives regularly getting to the truth of a story. Yes, truth is costly. But imagine how costly it would be—and sometimes is—to our culture if reporters did not pursue it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Resting the Lion: A Prime Example of the Sea Change

Today's memorial service of Senator Edward Kennedy in Boston reflected not just the loss of the country's fierce Lion of the Senate, but the massive changes in today's journalism. Hundreds of Massachusetts citizens throughout the week lined the streets of Boston to pay their respects and view his body—Tweeting their feelings in the process. This morning's actual service was streamlined in video on the New York Times web site, making the once traditional newspaper of "All the News That's Fit to Print" seem like a major broadcasting company. CNN—which IS a major broadcasting company—was posting hundreds of still photographs on its site. The Christian Science Monitor—the first major daily newspaper in the country to eliminate its print version for online site—posted audio podcast interviews with reporters who'd covered the senator. Meanwhile, our local newspaper, The Salem News, interviewed local representatives who'd worked with Sen. Kennedy; it also published wonderful archival photos of his visits to the North Shore. I have more information about Sen. Kennedy now than I ever have to appreciate the efforts of a man who undoubtedly served his country with passion and vision. What's stayed with me the most? That gorgeous historic photograph of Kennedy on Cabot Street in Beverly—which is not online but in my pile of papers waiting to be recycled.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Why Journalism Matters: My Top 10 List

10. Everyone is a snoop.
9. It's a window to the world.
8. Routines gain meaning.
7. History's first draft is recorded.
6. Perspectives take shape.
5. Powers get monitored.
4. Scoundrels are shamed and heroes celebrated.
3. Freedom is protected.
2. Communities stay connected.
1. Lives are changed.