I just recently rediscovered one of my old Masters degree assignments. My class had been asked to write a short essay about our news philosophy. At the time, I had already been employed professionally for several years, and I had been news director of Alabama Public Radio for nearly four years.
One’s personal news philosophy is like an organic being. If it is cultivated, nurtured and pruned, it will mature and become fruitful. However, if it is neglected, compromised or never even considered at all, it will wither and offer nothing of value to its owner. Knowledge learned through experiences and study constantly challenges the way I view my philosophy of what is or is not news. It is a healthy practice to regularly examine journalism as a profession and then consider, reconsider and perhaps change some of my ideas about news and its role in American society. I hope it makes me a better journalist.
Let me begin with what I consider to be news. I am much more interested in issues-related reporting versus “incident” reporting. Journalists should spend more time and effort cultivating sources, conducting research and digging under the surface of issues that affect our society every day. I believe this type of coverage is more informative and meaningful to a larger audience. “Incident” reporting, such as drug busts, car crashes and murders, are much more narrow in scope. News organizations merely have to react to cover them, and such events do little to enlighten an audience.
I recognize that adhering to a personal news philosophy can be quite difficult in the “real world” outside of academia’s shelter. It is a cold, hard fact that, in some organizations, a reporter is required to meet certain expectations, even if they conflict with one’s own personal standards. If the owner of a television station adamantly refuses to allow broadcast journalists to cover a certain story, it is a safe bet that employees will suppress their gut instincts in order to keep their jobs. Such pitfalls also are common when dealing with political and business interests. My own news philosophy insists that I should never compromise my standards when facing the threat of political or economic retribution. Even if I were to be fired over the issue, I believe that would be a much more palatable result when compared to the damage that my professional credibility could suffer if I had given in.
As a news director, I believe that one of the most important topics to pay attention to right now is the continuing “civic journalism” movement. This movement is a direct challenge to many of the long-held, traditional ideas of journalism, one of which is that journalists report news events without getting involved in them. Civic journalism, of course, advocates that news organizations should be more involved in community activities and issues. This continuing debate has the potential to radically change personal news philosophies, particularly among younger journalists who may not hold the more traditional values as tightly as older professionals.
I am still a core believer in relying on solid reporting and a respected reputation to attract and keep an audience. When it comes down to it, fancy graphics, digital cameras and computer-generated news sets do not provide the goods; they are merely vehicles through which to deliver information. However, it would be naïve not to recognize the impact that emerging technologies have on broadcast journalism. I believe that it is a weak philosophy that does not consider such changes and allow for proper adjustments.
Unfortunately, public opinions of journalism and journalists have become increasingly negative. Several polls show that the public does not respect – or trust – the profession as much as it once did. It would be difficult to create a news philosophy that would overcome this problem. However, I believe that once journalists develop, test and improve their professional beliefs, they should follow them without fail. Perhaps then our relationship with our audiences will begin to improve.