For all the outward appearance of cut-throat competition, a powerful pack mentality continues to drive much of the news media. Many journalists quietly spend a lot of time checking up on what their peers are doing, driven by fear of their editor demanding to know why they didn’t have such-and-such a story.
This dread of being left behind was rampant among the regional correspondents for England’s national daily newspapers, when I was a journalist there. In the second city, Birmingham, where I worked on the regional daily newspaper, the local reporters for the London-based nationals would check in with each other informally each day to agree what story they would pursue.
I remember one wild goose chase evening spent outside the terraced home of a woman who had supposedly inherited a fortune from a peanut millionaire somewhere abroad. She wouldn’t come to the door, but we all hung around outside for hours, afraid to be the first to leave in case we missed something everyone else got.
Such cover-my-assignment thinking subtly encourages uniformity of thinking. It’s hard to be the odd one out, seeing things a different way to everyone else. But if we’re happy to be governed by majority rule, why not accept media coverage the same way?
I go back to the account of the “journalists” in Numbers 13, the Israelite spies sent into the Promised Land to check out the place to which God was leading His people. Ten of them brought back a “bad report,” which I have noted had profound consequences for an entire nation. Maybe they were influenced by one of three pressures common to journalists to this day—maybe especially today.
Their peers. As I have said, many journalists have one eye out for a scoop and another on their competitors. Did all the ten come up with the same opinion independently, I wonder, or did some of them confer and decide that they didn’t want to be the odd ones out? Who’s going to suggest that the emperor has no clothes on?
Their “publisher.” It must have been quite an honor to have been chosen for the Promised Land press tour (though minus some of the luxuries I have enjoyed on some jaunts, through the years). Did they feel a responsibility to give Moses what he wanted to hear? Most journalists who have been around for any length of time will nave at least one horror story of having a commissioning editor decide in advance what the story “is,” and being reluctant to accept it when the actual facts don’t fit.
There’s the classic story from the heyday of the British tabloids, when an editor decided one summer’s day that the temperature was high enough to realize an old World War II claim. Troops who served in the African desert said it had been hot enough to fry an egg on the top of a tank. A hapless photographer was sent out to recreate this moment in central London and, having failed his way through a carton of eggs, resorted to buying a plastic fried egg from a joke store and slapping it on the hood of a car, to give the editor what he wanted.
Their “people.” A free press isn’t free―someone has to pay for it, whether that’s consumers or advertisers. Though independent media has always, for the most part, been a commercial enterprise to some extent, the financial realities are more and more pressing in the digital age. According to the The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism 2013 annual assessment of the state of the news media, newspaper newsrooms—fighting a losing battle with free online content—are almost a third smaller than in 2000.
This is leading to earnest debates about how to reduce the traditional “church and state” wall between editorial and advertising—giving those who pay for space or make up the audience enough of what they want to keep the money coming in—without selling out on independence and objectivity. That includes hiding behind words like “sponsor” (read, “they paid for this spot.”).
Tough calls. But not everyone goes along with the Numbers crowd. Two of the group Moses sent out brought back “good reports” (Joshua 14:7) that refused to bow to the pressures. We need more Joshua and Calebs who will tell it like it really is, even when that means going against the flow.