June 19, 2003

Slackers and Swindlers

Columbia University journalism professor Steven Ross is fed up with laziness.

In what appears to be a cathartic jeremiad, Ross asserts on the Poynter Institute's Web site that Jayson Blair, as toxic as he was to the credibility of newspapers, was a mere tumorous manifestation of a more malignant newsroom infection - a system that encourages reporters to "take shortcuts and cross (their) fingers" and rewards editors who "value good writing over exhaustive reporting." Ross writes:

"Much of the nation's public relations industry depends on writers taking these shortcuts. Our editors don't complain. Our publishers cheer us on. We may penalize journalism students and reporters for getting facts wrong, but almost never find fault with perfectly reporting the wrong story, a story fed to them by public relations officers or government leakers."

Ross continues on to assemble a sadly familiar list of common journalistic shortcomings - errors written into stories then repeated ad infinitum from clips (and now from Googling); reporters who fail to read, and therefore understand, complex studies they report on; big city reporters papers ripping off stories from weeklies or other smaller papers; and, as mentioned above, reporters steadfast reliance on corporate or government sources for stories.

All this is true. Even Ross' conclusion that the Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass "are not as far from the norm as readers have been led to believe," which I don't fully agree with - there is a difference between a slacker and a swindler - has merit in the context of his larger point: That too much "journalism" is reported by rote, written by formula and edited by people who have neither the will, the talent nor the space to improve the story. The result is mediocrity, which, while not as infamous as Blair and Glass, is just as deadly to the profession.

Ross offers no solution.

I suggest this one: Zero tolerance.

Laziness is a drug. It is addicting and self-reinforcing. Journalists cannot be weaned from laziness by platitudes about excellence, canons of ethics or sermons from the ivory pulpits of our campuses. We need to speak to them in the one language they understand, the lingua franca of the newsroom: Spike poorly reported stories; kick back clichéd headlines; fact-check enterprise; seek feedback from sources; demand that editors edit.

Raise the bar, open the door, and kick some people out. Quality journalism, especially daily newspapering, requires hard work and the business is full of many reporters, editors and photographers who do just that every day. But there are also far too many slackers in the ranks, and likely a few more swindlers, too, and it's time we weeded them out.

 Poynter Online Beyond Blair: Shortcuts to Disaster

Posted by Tim Porter at June 19, 2003 07:11 AM

Really interesting observations by your links and you, Tim....Thanks for sending along.

Posted by: deborah rabin on June 19, 2003 01:04 PM
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