Monday, September 25, 2006

Not every journalist is the same

It's taken me six months, but I think I finally have the hang of answering e-mails as the Collegian's Editor in Chief.

Some of the material that lands in my inbox still manages to shock me, but I've managed to group most of my mail into one of five categories.

These are the generic e-mails, the ones I get at least six of every day:
The "Please publicize my band/product/magazine/whatever!" e-mail.

The "I'm an excellent writer. You should let me join the Collegian" e-mail.

The "By the way, you missed a period on Page 6" e-mail.

And the always enjoyable, "You're all a bunch of liberals!" e-mail.

Seldom - and I'm talking seldom - does an e-mail with "Great job!" in the subject line pop up. These qualify as the "Wow, you guys aren't too bad" e-mails, and there will never be enough of them. When they do arrive, it usually takes me a full day to think of a response because it feels just that foreign.

Now, please understand that I don't do this job to receive compliments. In fact, constructive criticism is just as welcome because it means that people are reading and paying attention to the paper.

But it is truly an anomaly anytime positive feedback finds its way to a journalist.

We're generally used to being criticized, disliked, condemned and denounced for no reason other than the fact that we're journalists. It's part of the job, and many of us like it that way.

Nothing makes me giggle more than when a "You're all a bunch of liberals!" e-mail appears in my inbox in response to an editorial that was written by a conservative staff member.

That kind of criticism doesn't phase me.

However, I can't help but resent the fact that all journalists tend to be lumped into one category and are generally regarded as gossip-hungry, biased scavengers. It seems the public regards the TV "journalist" covering fashion trends the same as they do the one seeking truth in Iraq.

It's simply not the same.

Since 1992, 580 journalists have been killed for various reasons across the world, according to a report recently released by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization that has been keeping such records for about 15 years.

The study says that journalists are most often murdered as opposed to being caught accidentally in the middle of violence.

The usual culprits? Disapproving governments or other political groups that were so threatened by the idea of a free press that they had to actually murder the messenger in order to stop the flow of information.

You say journalists haven't been doing their job covering the war in Iraq?

Well, 50 of them - the majority of Iraqi nationality - have been killed trying to do so. And their stories rarely make headlines.

I of course am not trying to compare the risks taken by journalists given the task of covering war and poverty to the ones we at the Collegian take every day. It's not often that one of our reporters has a near-death experience covering an anti-sweatshop rally on the steps of Old Main.

However, the goal of both is the same: to uncover the truth and present it to the public.

Browsing through the list of names in the CPJ report, I noticed that only a few of the journalists killed were American journalists. It is much more common for a journalist to be killed covering political news in their home country – the most basic and noble form of journalism there is, in my opinion.

This threat of violence toward journalists that exists in the world is no less dangerous than the threat of violence toward any other sector of society.
In some cases, it is more so.

It serves as proof that information is the most valuable commodity in a prosperous society – and corrupted governments know that.

By all means, keep the criticism coming. We thrive on it.

But keep those 580 journalists in mind the next time you doubt how hard we try and how much some have had to sacrifice in the pursuit of freedom.

Monday, September 18, 2006

A fine line

Pep talks don't have much of a place in a newsroom.

And in my three years at the Collegian, there's only one situation that I can remember ever calling for one.

I spent part of the spring semester as the Collegian's metro editor (the job that I'd been after since I was a freshman), which meant that my staff of reporters covered news ranging from Borough Council decisions to downtown crime.

Part of being a police reporter means covering some of the tougher stories that come up every semester: the rapes, the murders, the people who go missing.

Unfortunately, at a school of nearly 42,000, a few students die every semester, whether in car accidents, by drug overdoses or in other tragic incidents. And whenever something like this happens, it's the job of the police reporters to pick up the phone and do one of the hardest things I've personally had to do in my life: Call the family of the deceased and ask them to talk for a few minutes about their loved one.

It's something that you never really get used to it.

So, as the metro editor, I always tried to give my reporters a pep talk before they made that phonecall.

I told them things like, "Let the family talk, don't ask a whole lot of questions," and "Give them an opportunity to call you back if they aren't ready to speak to the media right away."

Most of the time the reporter would take a deep breath, dial the phone number and immediately apologize to whoever answered the telephone.

I'd stand close by and wonder who to feel worse for: my reporter or the family member who answered the call.

But in light of recent events, I wouldn't blame the public if they had little sympathy at all for the reporter in such a situation.

If you haven't heard, there's a bit of a controversy surrounding CNN's Nancy Grace, the host of an interview show famous for putting its participants on the public chopping block.

Grace has become the center of a media firestorm since harshly questioning the mother of a missing two year old about her actions on the day of her son's disappearance. Her producers decided to air the Sept. 7 phone interview despite the fact that the woman, Melinda Duckett, 21, committed suicide hours before the show was scheduled to broadcast earlier this month, according to the Associated Press.

Grace all but accused the woman of playing a part in the mystery, and Duckett's family has said her suicide was the result of the interview with Grace.

So the issue for journalists, especially those of us with credibility and integrity, is: How much is too much? Where is the line when it comes to questioning the parties involved in high-profile stories?

And, of course, why the heck do people watch shows like that?

It's not hard for those of us in the business to surmise that Grace's interviewing style has more to do with ratings than it does with actual, legitimate journalism. But I'm not sure the average TV viewer has the background knowledge to know that.

And I'm worried that the result of a scandal like this will only worsen a trend that's bothered me for a while. The public has lost so much faith in the media already, and this type of thing only makes it worse.

It might be a while before anyone knows whether Melinda Duckett's decision to kill herself had to do with guilt connected to the disappearance of her son or whether Nancy Grace's interview actually pushed her over the edge.

In reality (and Nancy Grace's show is not reality), it is the role of the media to question and report the facts so that the public can come to its own conclusion. It is not the job of any journalist to insert opinion into what is supposed to be unbiased coverage.

So maybe that's the lesson of this whole thing: Nancy Grace is no journalist and should not be given the credibility and respect of one.

If anything good comes out of this tragedy, it might be that the public gets a better idea of what good journalism is and what sensationalism for the sake of ratings looks like.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Not quite Sex and the City

This could be the closest thing to a gossip column I’ll ever write.

I plan on talking about the people I work with and work for. I plan on giving you my opinion on the decisions my peers make. And I plan on divulging the details of any scandal, if it would serve the public interest to do so.

But I’m not talking about the who’s-sleeping-with-who kind of gossip. I'm talking about putting in my two cents about what’s going on in the journalism world.

We in the media generally walk a fine line between cutthroat competition and hardcore respect when it comes to other media outlets, and thus I consider journalists at other newspapers to be as much my peers as my competitors. There’s nothing I’d like more than for The Daily Collegian to beat the New York Times on a big story. But I’d still be back the next day begging for a job and worshipping at the altar of West 43rd Street.

If one thing’s for sure in the journalism world, it’s that we’re all kind of working toward the same goal.

Some of us just do it better than others.

One of my journalism classes today reminded me of one of the original reasons I wanted to create this blog.

My professor shared a recent survey with the class that reported only about 8 percent of the public had a "great amount" of confidence in the media.

Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of respondents reported having "hardly any" confidence in the media at all.

That scares me, so this is my effort to work on that. Here’s where I’ll give you my expert opinion on things like new technologies, media scandals and reader confidence in the media.

I believe the more you understand what we do, the more confidence you’ll have in the way we do it.

Stay tuned.