Long-time followers probably remember I studied journalism in college.
I graduated from Old Dominion University (go Monarchs!) in 2006 with a degree in Communications (emphasis on Mass Media). I minored in English with an emphasis on Journalism. While at ODU, I worked on both the school newspaper, The Mace & Crown, and the campus radio station, WODU.
For The Mace & Crown, I was a staff writer. Then I became Sports Editor. I also had a weekly column, a space in which I could opine on anything sports-related. For WODU, I started off as a DJ before transitioning into a weekly sports talk show and, eventually, working live play-by-play for basketball and baseball (the football program didn’t yet exist when I was a student).
Even though all of my practical experience was in sports, which in a way is its own specialized brand of journalism, my education – both in and out of the classroom – instilled in me a deep understanding, love, and respect for what the media is supposed to represent.
After graduating, I began doing freelance work for the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.). That work eventually led to a position working on the paper’s website dedicated to high school sports, where I was able to apply every lesson I had learned, while broadening my skills in the ever-growing online presence the newspaper business still struggles to deal with today.
I was laid off from that position before transitioning into media relations (which is similar to journalism, but still its own animal). Even then, and even with my background still being in sports, I still kept a close eye on the media. It’s one of those things that will always be important to me, even if it’s only from an intellectual standpoint, observing from afar.
I’m used to the media being adversarial with those they cover; that’s actually part of the job description. Whatever the beat, whatever the topic, reporters are often tasked with unveiling and sharing information others might not necessarily want made public. Whether it’s Patriots coach Bill Belichick not wanting to divulge a star player’s injury status or a high-ranking intelligence official declaring a piece of information classified, that constant tug-and-pull is a pillar of the profession.
Journalists – whether they’re on the air, have a byline, or even simply work layout and editing in a newsroom (yes, those people are journalists too) – should never cozy up to those they’re covering. Refreshing a pseudo-celebrity wannabe politician’s Twitter feed is not journalism; journalism is discovering what said wannabe is hiding when he goes on his all-too-predictable Twitter rants (they’re always trying to distract you from something). Journalists ask hard questions, journalists use good follow-ups to keep their subjects from weaseling out of questions they’d rather not address. Journalists stick up for other journalists – even if they’re from a competing outlet – when someone in power tries to de-legitimize them.
If it seems like journalism – actual, honest-to-goodness news reporting, not the fake crap that’s spread like wildfire – is under attack in the coming weeks, months, and years, that’s because it is. Authoritarian regimes – authentic or wannabe – always start by attacking the press. It usually works because, as unpopular as political and other leadership figures are, the press seldom fairs much better in public opinion.
Get the people to stop caring about or trusting the press, everything crumbles. Public trust wanes. The reporters with integrity are shunned, if not outright attacked. The ones without integrity become eager mouthpieces, desperate not to wind up on anyone’s bad side.
This might not matter to you. But as someone who has long studied the media, who understands what good strong journalism is and should be, it matters to me. And what I see these days is disheartening and terrifying. Journalism may not be the respected profession it once was, but it is no less vital to the health of our nation.
If we let the media crumble, everything else will soon follow.
So what can we do?
Well… if you’re so inclined, you can become a journalist. Study the field in college. Get experience along the way; chances are, your school will have a paper. Your local daily (or weekly) might have openings for freelancers. The pay isn’t great, but it gets your foot in the door. If you wind up working in the newsroom, doing the less noticeable work of laying out the paper, editing copy, and/or updating websites and social media platforms… take pride in that. You’re not getting a byline, but your work is just as vital as those who do.
If broadcasting is more your thing, there are sometimes similar opportunities there. A lot of schools have student-run radio and/or television stations. Those places are fantastic for gaining experience, and you can experiment with what works and what doesn’t without worrying about being fired (within reason, of course).
Choose the outlets you consume carefully. Subscribe to your local newspaper (often, the best journalism isn’t happening at the national level). If you trust a paper like The New York Times or The Washington Post, subscribe to them. There are print and digital options available to all. Your local TV stations can sometimes be good sources. If possible, ignore the 24-hour news stations. They care only for ratings (regardless of which way they lean), and they air empty debate-style programming that amounts to little more than echo chambers of whichever partisan viewpoint is being espoused.
Support independent media (”independent” means these outlets aren’t corporate-owned): ThinkProgress, The Nation magazine. Mother Jones magazine. A lot of these outlets also have a heavy social media presence, and you can find them with relative ease. Support journalists who do good work and hold those who don’t accountable (contacting them or the outlets who employ them).
Believe it or not, a strong press is essential to a thriving republic. I’m not convinced our press is that strong right now, for a variety of reasons, and it’s incumbent upon us to do our part to change that. The fight ahead will not just be waged against the politicians and their benefactors; it will also be fought in the newsroom, on the air, and on the Internet.
If we’re to win, we need a strong press on our side.