Friday, August 24, 2012

The Decline of Journalism

In the "Golden Age of Journalism" (long-since past) reporters were expected to confirm stories with two reliable sources willing to go on-record about the truth of the story. No newspaper editor worth his or her salt would accept as fact any story that was not so substantiated at a minimum. No newspaper writer would be allowed to rush to press with any story, no matter how sensational, unless some serious fact-checking had taken place...enough to satisfy the paper's editors that they were not risking their reputation by printing a story that turned out to be wrong. This rigorous process helps to prevent rumor and gossip from being presented as fact. Virtually all responsible newspapers followed the "two-source" rule because the consequences of not doing so were just too serious.

Sadly, that rigorous standard for confirming truth and accuracy has given way to the newspapers' new policy of "if it sounds salacious or negative, rush it to print; we can always apologize later." Any juicy tidbit, especially if it's about a celebrity, a political scandal or is race-baiting, finds its way into the headlines. Newspapers like the National Enquirer operated this way for years. They had more lawyers than reporters on their staff, but they couldn't care less; sensationalism sold papers to bored housewives and conspiracy theorists waiting in line at the supermarket checkout. This certainly was never the modus operandi of respected papers like the New York Times. They were known as "the newspaper of record" precisely because they were so careful in fact-checking their stories. 

Maybe the shift has to do with newspapers' fears that they are becoming irrelevant. Online news services are quickly stealing their readers; subscription and advertising revenue is dropping like mad. Rather than always being scooped by AOL and Yahoo, perhaps newspapers decided to abandon their age old process of searching for the truth and instead just rush every rumor to print in an effort to compete. It is unfortunate that the end is probably inevitable for them. Younger readers prefer to get their news on their computers for free rather than get out of their pajamas to walk down to the news stand for a paper. Stooping to the level of the rumor mongers is probably the wrong strategy. They might be better served to adopt a new strategy; others might get it fast, but we get it right!

Perfect example: This past weekend a group of Muslim worshipers had congregated in a park on Staten Island to celebrate the end of the Ramadan holiday. Someone found pieces of bacon on the ground, and the next day the headlines blazed: "HATE CRIME!" Muslims and all of us were led to believe that someone had left the bacon bits to defile the ground on which the worshipers were praying. Since Muslims consider pork unclean, the leap was made that someone deliberately was sending a message of hate. Politicians were outraged. Investigations were called for. A few days later, a scared man came forward and timidly said he had found the bacon in his car trunk, that it must have fallen unnoticed out of a grocery bag, and since it had gone bad, he left it in the park for scavenging animals. The guy sounded genuinely frightened that he was about to be put in jail.

Now I can't say what the truth is here, but if the guy's plausible story holds up, the inflammatory story run in the newspapers could have precipitated riots in the street. As it is, it didn't do much for Staten Island's reputation as a place where diversity is not welcomed. 


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

It's interesting how Newsday, once a respected newspaper has fallen to irrelevance. The world news is found way in the back around page 40! All the local news is up front. That I think is because local news is never featured on the Internet. Also, the Daily news does just about the same thing, driving itself with sensationalism and news that is not worth reading about celebrities and scandals.The Internet has completely changed the complexion of the newspaper forever!

Jim Pantaleno said...

I often wonder if WW III ever broke out (God forbid) whether it would push Donald Trump off page 1. This is the dumbed-down world we now live in...people would rather read about celebrity doings than real news.