June 17, 2004

On the Defensive

When I talk to other journalists about the defensive culture that shapes the thinking at many newspapers, I always try to offer concrete examples so the abstract becomes understandable in newsroom terms.

For example, when reporters ask for more editing so their stories will improve and their editor reflexively answers that he is already overworked, that's defensiveness - and the result is that the reporters feel disregarded, the editor feels either guilty for not being able to do the work or resentful for being asked, and the quality of the journalism suffers.

A different response, a more constructive one that might lead to a lower workload and more editing, would be for the editor to identify systemic or personnel issues that contribute to these conditions, to develop a roadmap for change and to act on that plan.

A few days ago, Jeff Jarvis related an exchange between Rafat Ali of PaidContent.org and an anonymous reporter from a self-described "professional publication" who accused Ali of breaking the embargo on a news story.

First, Ali pointed out that he reported the story by speaking "to about 20 people, just none of them the official sources. I am known to spoil companies' PR plans by breaking stories through unofficial sources..its called reporting, Mr Reporter. Did you learn your journalism from a PR school?" (Emphasis added.)

Then, the reporter's defense mechanism kicked in. Among his (or her) additional comments:

 "By respecing (sic) the embargo, professional reporters were able to get all their details right, something Rafat didn't do. They also maintain good relationships with the companies they cover so that they can get good stories in the future. "

 "The simple fact is that blogs can do whatever they want, but professional reporters need to pick and choose their battles "

 "Bloggers like Rafat provide an important service, but most of what they do is leeching off of what professional reporters do, either through links along with commentary or by 'breaking' news that we have to agree to embargo." (All emphasis added)

These are pathetic comments, each of which Jarvis, in his inimitable fashion, skewered. Here, for example, is his response to the reporter's first comment listed above: "You really are looking upon your job as that of a flack. Get this straight: The relationship that matters is with your audience, not with your sources!"

This is exactly right - and it calls the reporter on one of the core misunderstandings many journalists have. The obligation of journalism is to its readers, viewers or listeners. Their affinity should lie with the public not with the institutions they cover.

The defensiveness of the reporter is sad, particularly in arguing the validity of a journalistic form based on compliance between source and reporter. It betrays a dangerous, but all-too prevalent assumption among many mainstream journalists that "journalism" as an institution has an inherent authority that is only granted to those with certain credentials.

The protective constitutional shadow cast by First Amendment extends over "freedom of speech" and "the press," but does not define either of those concepts. Journalism is a form of freedom speech; the press is a delivery vehicle for journalism. What format "the press" takes as technology evolves and the public's taste for information changes doesn't matter as much as what is said and who has the right to say it.

Rafat Ali is part of the press. He practices journalism - and chooses to do so in way that is not only non-conventional but in fact subverts the some of the current conventions of traditional journalism, such as embargoes (which are created to serve the source and not the public). This subversion is threatening to mainstream journalists, so they react defensively instead of examining these new forms of journalism for lessons that might improve their own work.

If mainstream reporters and editors want to defend something, it should be the core principles of journalism and not the form in which they are embraced.

Posted by Tim Porter at June 17, 2004 09:48 AM

I think one of the points I have an issue with in the reporter's comments are that blogs do nothing more than "leech" off of the work that pros do. Bloggers aren't looking (for the most part) to gain some sort of mainstream acceptance by pointing out articles. They are acting as a filter, finding articles that a reader - who might be very interested in a topic - wouldn't have found on their own. Some bloggers present original thoughts, some bloggers even get news tips on their own and break a story here and there. In any case, most reputable bloggers credit original work as they should. If this "reporter" wants to come after people, then they should do the same thing to people who sit at the water cooler "talking" about some news that was reported - or people who call in to talk show hosts, whose ENTIRE medium is based on news items. All those hosts are doing is piggybacking on the work of others and allowing for a>their opinion and b>the public's opinion to be shared through another venue.

If the reporter is upset for some reason about this, then they should be upset at whomever gave Rafat Ali the tip in the first place. He did his DD, found some confirmation (from 20 people or so) and ran with it.

Ali scooped people who were sitting on a press release *they agreed* to sit on. He isn't acting unethically for BREAKING a story that came out. Isn't information reaching the end reader/user/viewer/listener the whole point? (As you stated, "The obligation of journalism is to its readers, viewers or listeners.")

Posted by: Tom on June 21, 2004 12:30 PM
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