Friday, February 10, 2012

Industry’s past mistakes still live

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
News always has been a tough business. There was a time when it was not unheard of for the hawkers at one publication to sabotage — whether by theft or by force — the sales of another.

Fistfights among newsboys were not unheard of, and scoop-hungry reporters once were known to bribe police and other officials for news tips, sometimes even for access to crime scenes.

If the facts of a story were not spicy enough, that could be cured with a little creative writing, some artistic license.

Such practices were among the elements of yellow journalism, where truth was an optional ingredient — screaming headlines and lousy reporting ruled the day. Such stories lacked objectivity and often were tainted by the reporter’s (or publisher’s) own viewpoint or bias. Facts were essential only when they supported that viewpoint or agenda.

Like today, times were tough and the competition for both readers and advertising dollars was stiff.

Eventually, there arose professional organizations, such as the Society of Professional Journalists, which set standards for ethical behavior and good reporting. Yellow journalism was shunned as the profession struggled to regain credibility and respect.

Today, many are inclined to blame the Internet on that vanishing respect. The Internet has become the de facto whipping boy for an industry that keeps falling flat on its face as it tries to reinvent itself — and its business model. The reality is that two recessions and the expansive growth of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s are just part of the problem. The industry’s own arrogance and reluctance to change were, in my view, other factors.

But as the industry staggers like a boxer under the pummeling of a superior opponent, there is a tendency toward relaxed standards. Being first, getting the scoop at any cost, being the best certainly are drivers in that scenario. But so are trial and error as the industry refines its use of digital technology.

Of course this pressure to be the best, to be the first, comes at a time when the newspaper industry has made massive layoffs, where the expression “work smarter not harder” has become a mantra which means only that the company is about to abuse its employees that much more fiercely.

As the industry caves, it is no wonder then that individuals would drop their guard and stumble. That happens to everybody at times, but before the cuts, there were more eyes, more opportunities to correct the mistake before damage was done.

But there is yet another level of difficulty these cuts have created. The loose cannon who once was held in check under the supervision of an editor suddenly is free to pursue an agenda, perhaps to right old wrongs, to slap down a perceived adversary. The truth of the individual’s actions become so brazen that even public officials recognize them for what they are — sad cries to regain a relevance lost, a persistent assault intent on toppling a perceived foe that does not exist.

In the end, truth  becomes irrelevant. “Facts” are replaced by supposition. All that matters is the scoop, the story, the defeat of a foe. The end result is the inevitable degradation of a profession that never has been entirely trusted.

I hate to see history repeat itself, yet sometimes it does.