The Huntington Chamber of Commerce held a “Meet the Media” breakfast where Long Island and metro-area journalists talked about the year’s biggest story, the least reported story, and how to get a press release seen as a story. This was interesting. What got me, though, was when they wrestled with what they must do to be relevant themselves. This is what I’d encourage:
Important Over Popular. I realize advertisers probably put undue emphasis on social media, but please let’s not have the peanut gallery dictate what’s covered. I have Facebook, LinkedIn, and friends who forward things inspiring, appalling or fun to argue with. I dig Digg. I even have Twitter followers, though I’ve yet to tweet. We cherry pick and pontificate, yielding finely niched popularity contests, personal statements, and less than civil, questionably educated debate. Should journalists participate? Sure. It’s a good place to connect and study people. This isn’t journalism, though. It’s the public square.
One local newspaperman pointed this out to his fellows, and I hope others will agree: You are the journalists. You are trained to uncover truth, draw attention, and provide context. Be savvy, but don’t pander to lowest common denominators or outspoken niches. Rise above, shine a light, and lift rocks where no one has looked. Wield your critical thinking skills, access to information, experience and judgment. Connect the dots, break it all down and serve up what you think people need to know. The masses will follow.
Good News and Bad News. We count on journalists to administer bad news. However, many otherwise intelligent people willfully ignore the media because time with it leaves the impression that the world is fully corrupted and likely a lost cause. Why? Editors know train wrecks sell.
One journalist made a point about this that was sharpened by the silence that struck before people realized his example was hypothetical: Were it revealed that the homeless girl from Brentwood stole her Intel-Semi-Finalist Winning Project from some kid in Jericho that would draw huge response. If that happened, journalists should burst our collective bubble. Thank God, it hasn’t.
Fortunately, the journalist’s point was dual. His example also showed the value and occasional front-page caliber of good news. Despite the lack of a gallows draw, everyone knew exactly who he was talking about. It was Samantha Garvey who, in the face of disheartening adversity, had the support and initiative to succeed. It is the best thing I’ve read in a while. Following the story as it brightened, I purchased a “real” newspaper to hug. It was at least as important as ever-impending doom and gloom. Samantha moved people to reach further and open wider. Some found faith in humanity, which can be hard to come by. Others found faith in themselves. Some stepped up to help that girl and her family, generating stories of their own.
Headlines and Detail. It’s true. Few can afford to pay attention. Even those with a capacity to focus have lots to keep track of. I don’t just read local media. I like regional stuff, and world stuff, and diverse trade stuff. I’m an existentialist egghead seeking to cover all perspectives. Sometimes you’ll even catch me reading tabloids and pondering overexposed life. Mostly, I’m striving to reconcile competing worldviews in search of my own piece of truth. That’s a lot of news. I have a full life to live around that. Often I’m limited to headlines and first paragraphs, grateful for whoever invented the inverted pyramid.
This doesn’t mean I only want one paragraph. Rather, it makes me even more reliant on journalists who get the full scoop. Those who at least link source material come across as open, educated, and respectful of intelligence. Maybe you don’t see too many stats showing people clicking through long articles, but I suspect those who do use them fully, and cite the heck out of them to others. These diehards are your experts, teachers, advocates and students. They include a critical minority that leads thought, and gets things done. A journalist who can fill a few pages well has probably also got a better grasp on what those first paragraphs should say.
If paper’s too expensive for that many words, fine, and even poets like me don’t want journalists wasting space with flowery nothings. Arrange front pages to facilitate skimming and conserve words elegantly, but please don’t cut to fit shrinking attention spans. We’re dumbed down to the bone already, thanks. Give us substance.
Bottom line? I hope journalists have faith that their best judgment merits attention. It’s not elitist to expect people to have minds worth stretching. We don’t need news based on what we already think we know, what the average blowhard’s willing to compute, or what will freeze attention in shocked stares. Yes, there are liars, thieves, fools and fouler things. We shouldn’t whitewash that, or minimize the media’s watchdog role. However, striving heroes and successes need spotlights too, preferably in a balance that mirrors reality. We must be warned, but also educated and inspired.
It’s unfortunate that news seems to be weighted on scales used for entertainment more than those used for academic contribution. Yes, great teachers employ both – and journalists ARE the ultimate continuing education machine — but shouldn’t we lean just a little bit more toward the latter? I think so.