Ask Yourself "Why?"

This is going to be the first of a few posts related to the current flurry of activity surrounding digital media and the rise of the “citizen reporter.” I promise that I’m making an effort not to recycle the same crap you can read on any number of blog posts about new versus old media. That topic doesn’t interest me.

(By the way, for you non-Southerners, the word “crap” is often used in the place of “junk” or “clutter.”)

This blog post got stuck in my craw when I read about YouTube’s new Reporter’s Center. I like this idea – a lot. But if you scroll through the offerings, the one word you’ll find repeated throughout is “how.”

Let me say this – I’m not threatened by the rise of “citizen journalism.” I encourage it. Get out and do some great reporting. I strongly suggest, however, that you also become informed. It’s not enough to know HOW to do something. You should also know WHY you’re doing it.

What’s lacking is some serious conversation about WHY journalism is important. What, exactly, are we supposed to be doing?

Journalism IS NOT supposed to be about the reporter. There are WAY too many people getting into the news business today who are only interested in becoming celebs. If that’s your idea, you’re already sunk. You’re serving yourself, not the public, when you do this.

I tried to hammer home this point when I was recruiting, training, and coaching young journalists at The University of Alabama. I still feel pretty old school about the role of a journalist (professional, “citizen,” or otherwise). We are supposed to tell stories. We are supposed to overturn rocks. We are supposed to be the voices for those who have none. We are supposed to speak truth to power.

Anybody can argue that any one of the above is a naïve statement. But they are true for me. I didn’t come to this conclusion after four years in J-school and wide-eyed optimism about my future as an ace reporter. It took me a long time.

It’s true that you can learn the mechanics of the job without a degree. And it’s true that you can learn about the professional dos and don’ts while working in a newsroom – without ever having set foot in a classroom. And now it’s true that you can get that kind of information on YouTube or anywhere else online.

My concern is that there are many people who are becoming “journalists” who don’t care to respect the history of the profession. And that history is very, very important to me. I spent seven years of my life studying it in grad school.

If you study media history, you’ll understand that, as the saying goes, there’s nothing new under the sun. I’m not convinced that what’s happening in the news media landscape today is any different from what has occurred in other periods of change.

That’s one of the things that we, as people living in the current age, tend to forget. We think the issues and challenges we have are great compared to those that have already slipped into history. Put yourself in the shoes of the 19th Century reporters and editors who suddenly had to deal with a new innovation called the Penny Press.

Don’t know about the Penny Press? That’s my point (those who do know about it are exempt from my narrow-eyed stare). The Penny Press was a revolution in journalism’s economic model. Sounds familiar?

Closely related to the “Why?” question are the “Where?” and “Who?” questions – as in “Where has journalism been?” and “In whose footsteps am I following?” Know your history – Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Day, Edward R. Murrow, Ida B. Wells Barnett, James Gordon Bennett, Joseph Pulitzer – they and a host of others were all innovative in their own times. And what exactly were these innovations? If you’re stumped, start with the Penny Press. As I mentioned above, that was a media revolution akin to what we’re seeing today.

You should learn from our profession’s past successes and failures. But to do so, you have to do a little research.

So study some of the history of this gig you’ve picked up. It gives you credibility, insight, and perspective. And you’ll earn a heckuva lot of respect from me.

Butler

Comments
2 Responses to “Ask Yourself "Why?"”
  1. Pam says:

    Way beyond the citizen's reporting, the network mainstream news media is no longer asking this most important question. I ask what is so scary about a question that a preschooler can ask five million times a day? I have added you to my blogroll at http://coosacreek.org/amputated.Keep asking "why".

  2. Good thoughts, and I agree with Pam's observation as well. "Why" is an important question for all journalists–career or citizen.I'm enjoying the "new" wave of citizen reporting partly for selfish reasons. Blogging, doing video, hopefully podcasting one day make me feel as if I am still a reporter–just not a full-time one any longer.Also, I'm glad to see someone else using the term J-school. :PGlad you're writing here!

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