Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

A Miley marker week for journalism

What do you call a week in which the two biggest news items are the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and a former Disney star’s embarrassing bump-and-grind routine at the MTV music video awards? A Miley marker for journalism.

The two provide a classic example of the high calling of news-gathering and the low levels to which it can sink, from race relations and focusing attention on the content of one’s character to, umm, twerking.

It’s a good time, then, to be reminded as I was that journalists who readily describe their craft as “the first draft of history” might also do well to consider something else. That they may not just be recording history, but actually shaping it.

Having observed before how the news media “disciples” people in their thinking, attitudes, and beliefs by what it reports or ignores, I was struck afresh, listening to an interview with Paul Salopek, how the amount of attention it gives something may be hugely influential in what happens subsequently, too.

“I think the reactive drive-by nature of modern journalism is self-defeating,” said the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent in a segment in On The Media. Why? “Because it provides less and less analysis, and we take our eyes off stories that fester and then become self-perpetuating cycles of crisis reporting.”

Salopek’s spot-on comments came in a piece about his fascinating Out of Eden Walk project, which will see him take seven years to trace the footsteps of early humankind, filing “slow journalism” articles along the way. It’s well worth checking out.

To his broader point, I wonder if it’s not a sadly natural consequence of living in an increasingly postmodern world. If all truth is relative, then who’s to say what is really important? Let’s just focus on what will get the most people talking for a few minutes, and then move on to something new.

These days so much of what passes for news is a few facts, a little background, an info-graphic, and some speculation. That’s in print. On TV it’s people talking about what they think might have happened, and what they think about what other people think might have happened. In-studio opinion is cheaper than on-site observation.

However, it’s not just the things journalists say about issues and events that shape opinion, but how long they stay with those issues and events. When the anniversary of that National Mall gathering and the VMA awards come and go with the same attention span, we have seriously lost the plot when it comes to what matters.

If he were with us now, fifty years on, I wonder how well Dr. King would think journalists have handled the questions he raised in that historic address? And fifty years from now, I wonder what people will think as they look back on all the ink and airtime given to Hannah Montana’s cringe-inducing secession from the ranks of role models, while people died from chemical weapons in Syria.


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