Experts needed in media

August 12, 1998|By Philip Dine

CONCERN about journalism's credibility and hence future is growing. While the worries are legitimate, their current focus may not be hitting the mark.

One source of anxiety has been the recent slew of lapses in ethics or judgment: A reporter's questionable acquisition of information, a columnist's over-inventiveness, a network's careless handling of a controversial story, a magazine writer's fictional accounts passed off as news.

Quick action

As damaging as these incidents may appear to be, they drew attention precisely because they are so unusual. And, lest we forget, because the media outlets in question took quick, bold and highly public action. The time to really agonize will be when such doings are no longer considered shocking and the organizations involved shrug their shoulders.

The other area of concern has been the rush to judgment, the setting aside of the normal standards of care and insistence on multiple sources, in reporting on the alleged romantic activities of President Clinton.

Here, too, while the media surely went overboard by a good distance, feeding frenzies over such sensational episodes are, by definition, infrequent. And, the subsequent time spent on self-flagellation is closing in on the initial efforts to divulge the latest rumor or leak.

Overheated coverage and ethical lapses are fault lines that journalism has always faced and will forever grapple with, and they are problems the trade will survive, even if it emerges a bit sullied from time to time.

A more insidious weakness, one that daily pervades the fare of stories offered big and small, is that of insufficient knowledge of the topics being covered. To the average reader or viewer such stories may merely seem a bit watered down or fuzzy; to those customers who really know a subject, it feels superficial or downright insulting. Either way, it's hardly the way to earn the public's trust. And it's not inevitable, but rather the unintended result of routine decisions.

A national newspaper assigns to Africa a reporter who knows little of the political or cultural or linguistic landscape because it's the next logical step for him. The gaps, after all, can be overcome on the job, the thinking goes, plus a good reporter should be able to handle anything.

A midsized regional paper rewards a competent Washington reporter with a high-level administration trip to Eastern Europe to report on Romania's frustrated efforts to join NATO, unfazed that the reporter is not familiar with Romania or NATO. The stories come back competently written because the reporter is a professional, but they add little insight beyond the daily events because the reporter's too busy getting up to snuff on the topic.

A major environmental conference comes to your city to tackle an issue that pits wildlife against growth and local jobs are at stake. The TV reporter who ends up covering it has scant background in either resources or economics, but he'll serve as your filter for this complex battle.

An available reporter

A harried metro editor at a small daily, alerted that a speech by a controversial religious figure is unassigned, looks up and catches the eye of the reporter who seems the least occupied at the moment. That reporter may not have thought about theology or been to church for 40 years but, hey, he's available.

None of these decisions will make the journalism reviews or talk shows, yet, multiplied dozens of times daily, they do far more to drag down the profession's overall quality and reliability and seriousness than the occasional train wreck. The ability to portray nuances, to provide context, to spot crucial breakthroughs is compromised when so many of us who gather and evaluate and report the news are jacks-of-all trades and experts in few.

An Italian graduate student studying communications at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told me a few years ago that she was amazed at the lack of demonstrated expertise required of U.S. journalists. Back home, she said, journalists were licensed in the fields they covered, much like architects or engineers.

That wouldn't work here -- imagine the prospect of government approving journalists -- but a little self-examination might be in order.

We reporters need to learn more about a specific area or two, ideally starting with our college studies, where science or history, languages or business are more likely to be valuable in the long run than how-to-do-it journalism courses. And we should fight to cover what we know, resisting the hectic and often random type of decision-making so common in newsrooms or those flavor-of-the-month assignments.

Editors need to do far more to match stories and beats with real knowledge, while downplaying office politics and career-path considerations.

Recruiting issues

Recruiters infatuated with prospects who have a flair for writing or who dazzle on computers -- or other equally noble attributes -- must make more room in the house for those who have mastered their topics.

Until we know more about what we write about, and write more about what we know, we will neither capture nor deserve the public's full confidence and respect.

Philip Dine is a national correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Pub Date: 8/12/98

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