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Journalism - a job or a calling?
Posted by: McQ on Monday, December 29, 2008

Deborah Howell's term as the Washington Post's ombudsman has come to an end. I can't remember that much about it that distinguishes it to me, except her post-election admission that the media had been in the tank for Obama from the beginning. I'm not sure how she figured that admission was news, but there you go.

In her last column as ombudsman, she drops this little cow plop in the pasture:
Journalism is better than it was in my early days, and changes in technology have opened up a new world. My worry is that journalists aren't as connected to readers as they were in the days of my youth, when the city's newspaper was the equivalent of the public square. Then, reporters tended to be folks who often hadn't graduated from, or even attended, college, and they weren't looking to move to bigger papers. They knew the community well, didn't make much money and lived like everyone else, except for chasing fires and crooks.

Now journalists are highly trained, mobile and, especially in Washington, more elite. We make a lot more money, drive better cars and have nicer homes. Some of us think we're just a little more special than some of the folks we want to buy the paper or read us online.
So journalism is better but the journalists aren't connected and think they're better than anyone else?

How does that work? How does journalism get "better" when journalists are disconnected?

Maybe she means it has gone from being a job to being a profession. But if that's her definition of "better journalism", I'll have to disagree. When it was a job, those who did it were people who, like she said, knew their community and knew how to cover it. That sold newspapers - which, at the end of the day, is the point of the business.

Now, for many "journalists" it is a "calling" instead of a job and it attracts people with an agenda which many times conflicts with their community's mores and morals. Their world view is shaped and then steeped in the culture of a liberal "journalism school" rather than in the community in which they live.

The result is elite journalists who are about as much a part of and representative of the community in which they live as the politicians they cover. And apparently that's not something which is selling many newspapers anymore.

Funny - my job involves working with newspapers. I see them all, from the huge dailies to the small weeklies. They're all hurting. But the scale of the hurt seems to be much greater in the large dailies than in the smaller community oriented papers where "journalism" is still a job and reporters are an integral part of the community.

Those papers are still making it. Maybe papers like the Post and those elite journalists might take a moment and try to figure out why.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

There’s nothing wrong with journalism being a calling if it’s driven by a desire to discover and reveal the truth, all of it.
Written By: Grimshaw
URL: http://
The problem with a "calling" is that it changes the way a person approaches what they do.

Pastors are "called." That’s not always a problem, but it can be. Because people often lose sight of the notion that one can be "called" for a season. The result is a tendency for pastors to continue when they ought to move on, or else for congregations to treat them as having a special authority from God.

Teachers are often described in messianic terms. They are called to a noble task, a better task, than regular people. Rather than teaching being a "job" it becomes a burden and often enough those involved in it become self-righteous.

Journalists view "speaking truth to power" as a higher calling. If it were a job it would be more honest, less agenda driven. Revealing all of the truth is fine to say, so long as the "truth" is the "facts" and not some deeper truth that leads to the "fake but accurate" silliness of not caring how people are convinced of what the journalist knows is "true" or choosing to interview the people who best conform to the journalists own prejudices.

I’d far rather journalists (and teachers, and ministers) would view themselves as tradesmen, that they’d view what they do as worth doing well, but not as self-defining. Involving the ego too closely doesn’t tend to work well for *any* profession.

Written By: Synova
Whatever training they get in the J-schools nowadays, it isn’t helping very much.

Written By: shark
URL: http://
Isn’t being a journalist means you read Manufacturing Consent and agree with Noam Chomsky? Is there anything else they need to know?
Written By: Larry M
URL: http://
I actually think there is a future for newspapers, but it involves the small, local community paper.

In my city, we have several such papers, each region of the city has one, and they are all growing in circulation.

But they don’t report national (and only rarely state) news. They also make their money on want adds.
Written By: kyleN
Fair enough Synova. I don’t think of something being a ’calling’ as necessarily involving an over indulgence of the ego, but I understand what you mean. I’m perfectly fine with anyone feeling that their job is important and worth doing well. You can believe that while being humble at the same time. Perhaps the problem is that people who need to feel important are attracted to these professions, not that the profession corrupts the humble (usually).
Written By: Grimshaw
URL: http://
Perhaps the problem is that people who need to feel important are attracted to these professions,
I think so.
Written By: Synova
Deborah’s article an entertaining, yet also enlightening smorgasbord of insights into the state of print journalism. Where does one begin?

For humor, this comment was delicious: the Internet sometimes makes ink on paper seem so yesterday — especially in the context of her recollection of coming from a world with Tex Typewriters and Linographs. It reminds one of that episode where the media’s curiosity with the capability of such typewriters with yesterday’s ink resulted in such depth of investigative reporting regarding one of the greatest journalistic frauds in recent decades.

Then there’s this gem: Now journalists are highly trained, mobile and, especially in Washington, more elite. Within their community, there’s certainly a perception of eliteness, though outside the journalistic community, they’re regarded as ethically one step below prostitutes and bookies (but you’re so much closer to the news there!). Curiously, Deborah isn’t aware of the depth of research about the public’s perception of the state of ethics within journalism (mostly that they do whatever is necessary to get their story, attain a competitive advantage and obtain peer recognition). That’d probably be too much for an ombudsman to understand how her public may perceive the behavior of her writers, and what behavioral dynamics may cause unethical practices in the paper’s operations.

I do have to raise a serious objection to Deborah’s inference that journalists today are more educated. Other than probably having better word processing skills than their predecessors (I’m lumping Dan Rather in the latter crowd, mind you), there is substantial evidence to suggest that a major factor in the flight of readership is due to the lack of sufficient education in technical areas (e.g. political science, economics, business, science) and in the complete absence of an self-governing association, charter or agency to sustain and enforce the practice of ethics in the profession. The technical writing has led many information sources to avoid contact with journalists. Our Fortune 500 firm does so, given that it’s more likely than not that basics will be confused and misreported. Even minor articles I’m involved with for coverage community organizations and schools invariably have a handful of basic factual mistakes. For a public corporation, this can harm the company while providing no value. We don’t seek newspapers to maintain our image, and given that the second dynamic (the absence of a charter to enforce ethical practices) is a problem, we wouldn’t trust their intent either.

Indeed, many of us here have had to seek professional certifications to be entrusted with the information we process, communicate and represent. I assess operational and technological risk for my company and maintain a CISA, CISSP, CAP and CGEIT, as well as an undergraduate in finance and graduate in economics. I would not be trusted to do my job representing strategic risk, especially given its capacity to financially impact the corporation, without these specializations, all of which have nothing to do with the basic writing skills I must employ in every assessment and report we prepare, nor the basic management skills I must use with our analysts. Where does a journalist specialize in the fields they write about? On top of this, each association and certification requires compliance to a strict code of ethical conduct. The bias shown in most AP articles would never pass in my world without serious consequence likely resulting in one’s expulsion from the profession. In fact, making up facts in many professions results in a lengthy jail sentence.

Of course, I’ve advocated these views to journalists only to have them scoffed at (especially the expectation that they learn what they report on - "I’m a journalist. I’m an expert in everything" is a prevailing attitude). The demise of their profession at the expense of actual industry professionals who possess writing skills and blog in their spare time is of little surprise.

Incidentally, but was it just me, or did others come away after reading that wondering where Deborah learned to write? The clash of colloquialisms, exceptionally overused catchphrases, the bungled constructs with idea fragments stapled to the end of unlike sentences, etc. Does one become an ombudsman due to the Peter Principle at work, and if so, shouldn’t it be disclosed to the public that their representative attained the role only because they were unqualified to do any other function in the newsroom?
Written By: HatlessHessian
URL: http://
"Now journalists are highly trained,"

Just how much training does it take? Anyone who successfully passes freshman English Composition should be able to write a coherent newspaper article, and as for content, it is rather obvious that even superficial knowledge of the subjects they write about is rare. I am not even sure journalists are computer literate, as they seem unable to use Google or other search engines to check even basic facts.

Elite? Only in their own minds.
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
...there is substantial evidence to suggest that a major factor in the flight of readership is due to the lack of sufficient education in technical areas (e.g. political science, economics, business, science)...
I’ve been saying something similar for a while, and I like to add "anything associated with the military" to that list:
You don’t understand business, economics, the military, or technology; in fact, you don’t study anything in school except how to put words in a row. But you still write stories on government, foreign affairs, and the economy, despite the fact that most of you are less able to understand those things than my teenage sons.
Written By: Billy Hollis

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