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Losing sight of purpose in journalism

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The role of a modern journalist, for all intensive purposes, should be to tell the public the truth. Even when the truth is upsetting. Even when it is disturbing. Even when it goes against all morals held by all good men. A true journalist should be a public servant.

However, more and more frequently it seems as though the role of journalism is becoming more selfish than selfless; less of a public service and more of a personal motive. The Toledo Blade’s three-month assault on Tom Noe. Newsweek’s report on Guantanamo Bay and “Flushgate.” It seems as though more and more frequently that the motives of the journalists whose names appear on those bylines are not to serve the public, but to beat the competition to the punch or to crucify a human being who by all means is not perfect, but does not deserve to be dragged through the mud day after day.

Journalists are asked to do what is seemingly impossible — they are expected to report events in an honest, unbiased nature. This goes against the grain of every human tendency. And alas, journalists are humans, too. But to accept journalists as human beings requires journalists to accept their topics as human beings, or situations that affect human beings.

Despite the fact that they are held to an impossible standard of human nature, journalists are by no means on a pedestal. They go home to their families and go to bed burdened with the same stains and sins as anyone else. Unfortunately, it is when certain journalists stand on oftentimes self-appointed pedestals that journalism suffers, and as a result, the public suffers, too.

When my friend was charged with involuntary manslaughter, journalists wrote the stories detailing the night she accidentally killed her newborn daughter. Admittedly, the situation was horrendous and tragic. But at the same time, there was a person, a human being, behind the red and puffy eyes in the mug shot featured on the front page, desperately regretting what happened, begging God to let her take it back, mourning the loss of her child. Journalists no longer focus on the humanity of it all — quite simply, it is whatever will make the most noticeable headline.

Journalism is a competitive and cut-throat field. And it’s understandable that oftentimes the only way to curb off the competition is to erase the humanity from the story and provide cold, uncaring black and white. There is a difference, however, between the black and white and utter disregard for the true essence of the story.

It’s rare that the reader (or viewer, depending on your media of choice) considers the fact that on the other end of the story is someone who is crying over the events that transpired. For example, the Tom Noe incident here in Toledo. Certainly some illegal events probably transpired, a few corners were cut and a few million dollars were lost. This is inexcusable, naturally. At the same time, does anyone consider the fact that behind this story is a man who built himself from the ground up, who worked for everything he had, and was ultimately a successful businessman of his own making? That he had a family in Toledo that was hurting to see the constant assault on him from the Toledo Blade, and later, the Associated Press?

No, the public doesn’t consider this. Media is ultimately impersonal. And that’s the beauty of journalism. It’s cold, it’s black and white, and it isn’t about the emotions that come with any newsmaking event.

But maybe it should be.

Maybe instead of considering what’s going to make a buck, or what’s the most sensational, journalists should consider what is the most fair to all involved — the subject and the public. Instead of crucifying people on the front page of the daily news, perhaps journalists should consider every angle, even if it’s dubious. Even if the angle’s obscure. Isn’t that what responsible journalism is about?

It is important to report the story but it is also important to be fair. Growing up in a small town and a small church, I was taught to say things only if they fell under all three of the following stipulations:

1. Is it true?
2. Is it fair?
3. Is it necessary?

Maybe if certain journalists began to consider these tenets, taught to children in a rural church, media would begin to lose its stigma and it could begin to remedy situations rather than directing an unwitting public as to which direction to point fingers.

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About Chelsea Smith

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    That seems confused Chelsea, if heartfelt.

    How do you reconcile …

    >>”The role of a modern journalist, for all intensive purposes, should be to tell the public the truth. Even when the truth is upsetting. Even when it is disturbing. Even when it goes against all morals held by all good men.”

    with characterizing the Blade stories as you have done: “The Toledo Blade’s three-month assault on Tom Noe.”

    (And, I don’t know, but has it been three months? It’s only been a somewhat national issue for about three weeks to a month)

    I find a lack in journalism today – often because of money – is to drop a story in the newspaper and then forget about it – no matter its importance. (And I am often forced to be as guilty of this as anyone. There is just such a wash of news and when you’re understaffed you have to let a lot of it go).

    Instead of “assault” we often get … nothing.

    From what I read the Noe stories have led to a continuing mountain of evidence that the guy was pretty crooked.

    I think he’s had plenty of years of pointing out his good side, don’t you?

    How do yo know the papers haven’t asked him to participate in a profile. I know I have often sought to write the “other side” articles and lawyers and so forth often get in the way and nix the idea.

    Also, a little more toward the overall point you were making yes, newspaper reporters should be banned from the opinion talk shows. It just stinks and among many other details, it erodes any idea of objectivity for the rest of us who don’t spout their opinions about what they report on.

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    “intensive purposes” should be “intents and purposes”. Sorry, it was driving me mad.

    Dave

  • http://obnoxiouscouple.blogspot.com Chelsea Lou

    Ah Temple, coming to rain on the parade as always. Good to see you again. :)

    Okay, the Tom Noe thing first — it’s been a national issue for a shade under a month, yes. But the Toledo Blade has been featuring stories on this guy daily since March. Locally, it’s gotten tiresome. Yes, a lot of information has been dug up on the Noe thing that isn’t exactly moral. But it seems oftentimes as though the Blade just brings up insignificant details and blows them out of proportion to keep the issue warm while they are busy unearthing more ground-shattering dirt. And trust me, when you’re seeing more asinine than concrete, it gets old. Fast.

    However, the Noe thing isn’t the only reason I felt compelled to write this. The idea has been simmering on the back burner for about a year with me, ever since my friend’s incident (which I also mentioned in here). I had journalists combing through the yearbooks and calling up her friends (there were four of us always together and the yearbook showed that) and telling us to tell them about Natalia, the details we knew, what Natalia has said to us about it, etc. It was really lame, and the reporters only continued to call and harass my other friends and I because we refused to comment.

    Since then I think my eyes were opened and more and more, I’m becoming very disillusioned with journalism. It is frustrating because this is the career I have wanted to pursue for most of my life — I even have the Chinese symbol(s) for ‘writer’ tattooed on my foot — but at the same time I am beginning to question whether or not I can stay in a field with such skewed ethics.

    Now that I just passed my 20th birthday, I’m forced to admit this isn’t teenage angst, but 20-something angst, and for some reason that just seems more angsty.

    By the way Temple, I’m out of an internship as a result of the Toledo scandal (ask if you want to know) — need any reporters in your neck of the woods? ;)

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    I can sympathize with the disillusionment. I think a lot of what journalists now don’t do is forced on them by the bottom line ethos. Much stronger than it has ever been.

    As you say if a journalist is meant to be a public servant, it’s awfully hard when “the bosses” are wanting a 20 percent increase on profits every year.

    Of course they report and uncover the faults of that bottom line ethos in other companies / industries.

    Journalism is one of the most examined professions – inside and out – with critics both inside and out. Some of them know what they are taking about. Some of them would love for journalism to be whipped into submission and not ask the tough questions.

    The more the public is happy with that, the easier it for those businesses and politicians who are screwing up and / or breaking the law to get away with it and avoid those questions. (If there’s no penalty for avoiding the truth – fines, imprisonment, voting out of office, public opinion – those who are already breaking the law and therefore have reduced morals will continue to avoid the truth.)

    With the Noe example I think – again without reading all the coverage – that the paper had to prove it was serious in pursuing the tough questions and I applaud them for devoting resources to what appears to be embezzlement or fraud at a very high level.

    News is changing. Both you and I will probably end up writing for an online-only newspaper, one with much less overhead but more staff. I say that because we’re both tuned into the Internet. You might end up writing for an opinion magazine or something similar. Me, I think doing that shuts my writing down to half the audience (the half that won’t read the magazine because of it’s partisanship)

    That’s if my novels don’t sell, of course.

    I hope you don’t consider it raining on your parade to continue the discussion. I did see the smiley, so ….

    I was managing editor of two newspapers for a relatively short time. They were owned by a corporation and there was so much non-journalism energy I had to expend it was depressing. But that’s what happens when the bottom line rules the day (Still some companies are slaves to it more than others. There is variety.) I can tell you more about that if you wish. :-)

  • http://sussfr.blogspot.com Matthew T. Sussman

    The Toledo Blade is a family owned newspaper, one of the few remaining. Suffice to say, the Block family has a lot of influence in the area.

    The Blade first reported on April 3 that the Ohio BWC invested $50 million in rare coins. Today is June 13, so that’s about two and a half months. The attack on Noe has been, to say the least, relentless on him, his wife, and his brother-in-law. They’ve moved to Florida as a result.

  • http://obnoxiouscouple.blogspot.com Chelsea Lou

    Temple — Nah, I don’t think you’re raining on my parade – though you are typically cynical in your responses to my posts, I no longer tell Suss, “God, this Temple guy is a dick!” (I retract that statement now.)

    I’m halfway through with my college career now and at a crossroads in which I am beginning to lean toward public relations rather than print journalism. Besides the fact that the job market looks a little less bleak, I also figure that if I’m going to enter a career where most people are shady and focused on the bottom line, I may as well go into a career where they’re at least up-front about it.

    Besides, as president of a sorority I am used to working with every and any type of personality and getting them to think what I want. ;)

    It’s also interesting that you point me in the direction of an opinion magazine. God, am I that much of a bitch? *LOL* It’s actually interesting because when it came down to picking where in the campus newspaper I wanted to work, I flipped a coin to decide between columnist and reporter. It worked out in the end though, since I wound up hoodwinking and dating then-opinion editor Matt Sussman.

    ANYWAY, you say, “It’s awfully hard when “the bosses” are wanting a 20 percent increase on profits every year.” That is exactly what scares me about this profession. I guess I’m still naive and think that I’ll be able to write the truth regardless of the concern for the bottom line. I know better, but I guess I still want to think that journalism is a noble profession.

    I also like to believe Santa left me Christmas presents back in December, and that the Easter Bunny loved the carrots I left out for him this spring.

  • bob klahn

    Relentless attacks on Tom Noe? You think he’s just a flawed human being? He’s a crook, a blatant crook.

    Tom Noe had 50 mill of Workmans’ comp money. Of that 10 to 12 mill is missing according to his own lawyers. That’s not petty theft, that’s grand larceny on a major scale.

    Tom and Bernadette Noe didn’t move to Florida because of a newspaper vendetta, they moved because he is a crook. And Florida may allow him to protect some of his stolen money because of their bankruptcy laws.

    That money was from workman’s comp. It’s purpose is to provide for injured workers. And tom Noe ripped off those injured workers for $10 to $12 million dollars.

    Everything he got he deserved, and much more.

    Don’t talk about his family. He has two daughters from his first wife. They were students at the Catholic Highschool where Tom Noe started dating an office employee, cheating on his wife, with Bernadette, now Noe. He put his children through hell in that breakup. He has no right to claim his family as protection.

    Toughen up if you want to be in any form of journalism, you can’t be crying for the crooks. Cry for the innocents he hurt.

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    Noe sounds lovely. Yikes. And we – the public – shouldn’t tear some people to shreds for blatant crimes against hundreds of people ???

    Jeffrey Dahmer was just a person, too.

    Isn’t the public much better served knowing of this man’s faults then treating him with kid gloves?

    Glad to know I’m off the “dick list.” LOL