Reporters learn their craft in several ways. One is imitation. Another is instruction by a teacher. Another is instruction by experience. The lessons taught by each may be widely dissimilar. But lately, imitation and instruction by experience, unleavened by common sense, have produced poor journalism. That ill serves readers.
Much harrumping by media critics has followed NYTer Jeremy Peters’ revelation of “quote approval” — demands that reporters allow politicians to edit and rewrite quotations chosen for news stories.
Dan Rather calls this “a jaw-dropping turn in journalism.” Says NYU prof Jay Rosen: “This is real power shift. Quote approval is now routine on the campaign trail. Reporters feel they have no choice.” Former News & Record editor John Robinson: “Campaigns get quote approval? Can we embarrass ourselves some more?” And CUNY prof Jeff Jarvis: “1 Journalists should never give quote approval. 2 If they do they’d damn well better reveal it.”
Why would otherwise competent journalists surrender control of their story-telling to the subjects of their stories?
A perfect storm of circumstances, driven in large measure by technology, has swept political journalism off its traditional mooring — it is no longer the principal avenue by which politicians speak to audiences.
First, politicians present their perfected personas on their own websites, followed by direct email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others. The bulk of political money is spent on carefully crafted messaging through negative broadcast attack ads. Politicians now speak directly to the audiences they need — without the intervening filter of a journalist.
Second, the demise of newspapers’ business model — caused by a withering loss of ad revenue to the Internet — forced the firings or buyouts of tens of thousands of journalists. Those who remain are generally younger, cheaper, and less experienced.
Third, news, now repurposed as content, must be instantaneous. Newsroom managers want that speech live-blogged or live-tweeted; they want stories on the website to read 5 minutes ago, not 5 hours ago. Time for reflection, inspection, and analysis has vanished. The ability to repeatedly and quickly write 140 characters has become more important to job seekers than a stack of award-winning, long-form story clips. It’s 1940 again, and the rush to be first with a tweet mirrors the worst of AP vs. UPI so many decades ago.
The above licenses a politician to demand to see what quotes will be used in a story. He or she knows I don’t need a journalist to tell my story. So if I give an interview, I’m going to be damn sure the journalist tells it my way. Otherwise, the politician reasons, I can use Twitter to get my point across and deny that reporter access to me. I can now punish reporters.
I have taught my students for years that journalism is driven by two immutable forces — time available and access to sources. Today’s political journalists have far less of both than even a decade ago. The blogs and Twitter must be fed regularly — meaning now. And now. And now again. Politicians can limit access to sources because they just don’t need journalists any more.
So reporters surrender control over the content of their stories to sources. That means they’ve surrendered control of the story, the message, the narrative.
Journalists defend the practice as necessary to maintain access to political figures. Surrendering control of the narrative to a source is not access; it is merely willingness to be manipulated to get a story — any story — now. Journalists have not had meaningful access to political figures for a long time. Meaningful? That’s having calls returned promptly, getting forthright answers to difficult questions, and safeguarding editorial freedom to assess and report the facts — grafted to context — provided by sources.
If what you read these days in news stories appears as bland as lukewarm, unsweetened oatmeal, you have not been well served. You have been fed a politician’s carefully structured narrative. Demand to know if the reporter aided and abetted that narrative.