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The Foundations of Journalism, Part 2

September 15, 2009

The question where journalism is headed online keeps professionals and journalism schools busy – with very different outcomes. Meanwhile, the real world holds pain and inspiration.

Columbia University apparently decided the future of journalism can be found at sites such as TMZ.com. They invited the site’s founder, Harvey Levin, to speak at their prestigious journalism school. “Meet the new boss,” writes Hunter Walker, blogger and student at Columbia, on Gawker, calling Levin “someone who can actually offer jobs to j-school graduates.”

But in my eyes, TMZ is not journalism. Their interpretation of “celebrity news” is stalking people that are somewhat famous, or in Walker’s words, “you basically can’t check into a hospital anywhere in Southern California without him [Levin] finding out about it.”

That is the inspiration that Columbia is presenting to its students?

The future of journalism? I hope not.

The future of journalism? I hope not.

Even Walker seems resigned. “The stereotype of j-school students is that we all enroll with visions of writing ponderous Pulitzer-bait features and breaking Watergate-sized scoops, but in today’s job market, it seems like a lot of us would be content writing about reality TV stars.”

Is that what the future of journalism will be all about? I am shocked Columbia is inviting people like Levin to speak to its students – and I don’t just say that because of the underlying rivalry between Columbia and Medill, both vying for the top spot in journalism education.

I’m so shocked because the reporting principles used by sites like TMZ are a shame for the journalism profession. Constant intrusion on people’s privacy is an abuse of the rights granted to the press.

That people like Levin call themselves journalists, and are invited to speak at one of the most prestigious journalism training grounds in the US, is a slap in the face of those who really report, who are in this line of work to find the truth, who put their life on the line every single day to report facts and find stories.

You think that’s a bit far out there?

On Sunday, I met one of those people.

Kais has worked in Iraq with National Public Radio (NPR) for six years until a few weeks ago. He was a field producer for NPR and has been kidnapped working there, but luckily, he said, the kidnappers only took his money and he was released. But the fear stayed: “I was afraid to go anywhere, I was afraid to buy bread,” he said. He couldn’t tell his friends that he was working with NPR, because people didn’t understand the difference between being a journalist and working “for the Americans.”

It eventually became too dangerous for him to stay in Iraq. “We left everything,” he said. “Money is nothing compared to life.”

He arrived in the US on August 3.

The NYT's At War blog - Munadi was working with them in Afghanistan.

The NYT's At War blog - Munadi was working with them in Afghanistan.

Local liasons like Kais are incredibly important to journalists covering war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just last week, the New York Times lost Sultan Munadi, one of its translators, when he and a journalist were kidnapped in Afghanistan.

In a blog post describing his thoughts on Munadi’s passing, John Burns writes:

“Behind these deaths lie complex and highly emotive issues for those of us who have traveled to war zones for The Times and other news organizations, involving our responsibilities for the lives of the locally employed people who make it possible for us to operate in faraway lands -– interpreters and reporters like Sultan, but also drivers, security guards and domestic staff members; altogether, in the case of The Times, at least 200 people in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years of those two wars.

Beyond that, and far more difficult to weigh, if not impossible, are our responsibilities to the soldiers, Marines and commandos who may be deployed to rescue us, as they were in the case of Stephen Farrell and Sultan in the overnight hours of Tuesday to Wednesday. …

But this much can be said with certainty. The New York Times, and other major news organizations, have no choice about covering these wars, and covering them comprehensively, if we are to be true to our tradition; with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers committed to battle over the course of the wars, more than 5,000 servicemen and women already dead, and closing in on a trillion dollars of American taxpayers’ money spent, how credible would be our claim to be one of America’s leading newspapers if we absented ourselves?”

He goes on to write that when covering these conflicts, journalists have no choice but to cover them where they happen, to speak to locals and venture out of their hotel rooms. Local staffers are essential, because they have valuable knowledge and can scope out locations and make contacts. Burns writes that their warnings about the security of a reporting trip are listened to closely – yet events like those that led to Munadi’s death cannot always be foreseen.

These are the people I am in awe of – their passion, courage and skills make a difference in how we see these wars. People like them inspire me to become a better journalist. People like Kais, like Sultan Munadi or like Professor McClory, who told us a little while ago to tell stories that touch “the great realities” of life.

I acknowledge that these high hopes may not come true every hour of every day working out in the field, but I want to aspire to them nonetheless.

And I want my journalism education to reflect those aspirations, to be build upon the desire to bear witness, to tell stories and to shine a light on injustices. Therefore, I hope Medill never even thinks of inviting someone from TMZ here.

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PS: It doesn’t always have to be war reporting – how about this amazing coverage by National Geographic on EarthPulse? I am still blown away by how they put together incredible photos, accesible statistics, rich information and essays on such an important topic. It’s supported by the Allianz Knowledge Initiative, so maybe we can take a clue from them on future financing of journalism, too?

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Click here to find out more!
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2 Comments
  1. Very good…..

  2. Right on spot, I get angry when the TMZ founder is interviewed on CNN on how journalism can thrive because they broke MJ’s death. If anything at all, he stands for the detrimental effects of uncontained commercialization that rips journalism of any ethics – the total meaninglessness of news in terms of social value.
    TMZ has a lot of sources, but that is because they practice check book journalism, and will even pay for gory picture of beaten celebs, as in the case of rihanna. Who needs this picture? Why is it important to the public?

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