Don’t believe everything you read: Why journalism still matters

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By Katie Parsons

In an earlier post, Leo Valiquette wrote about the rise in incidents of plagiarism among high-profile journalists. Leo contends that the timing of this increase is no accident; forgetting ethics that were learned in Journalism 101 is part of a larger cultural shift stretching professionals too thin. With newspapers, magazines and broadcast entities operating with skeleton staff and individuals being asked to do more online, it is no wonder that facts appear to be falling through the cracks.

Many journalists are not happy with the current state of things. Dozens of staff at the Chicago Tribune recently sent a petition to newsroom editor Gerould Kearn asking him — begging him — to do what he could to convince executives to discontinue the use of the content creation company Journatic. The Tribune had farmed out nearly all of its suburban coverage to the data mill, whose own executive talked publicly about how reporters simply do not need to live in the communities that they cover. He offended a few journalists in the process and then proved his own statement wrong.

Just a few months into the relationship, a Journatic writer was discovered to be lifting exact data and quotes from other local sources. It was plagiarism at its best — but when Journatic executives were confronted, they did not seem to even understand what the writer had done wrong. It was also revealed that the company regularly uses fake bylines in its stories.

Though news “rewriting” and the use of fake names online is a common — even accepted — practice, its association with a pillar of the journalism community led to outrage. The incident is a high-profile representation of a shift in accepted practices in the publishing industry. Increasingly, companies are hiring staff who have experience in multimedia platforms or the ability to churn out content, whether or not they actually understand the definition of journalism. As Leo pointed out, “it’s devilishly easy to dig up all sorts of data points and background information on the Internet and lose track of the origin.” But people trained in the profession at least know the importance of tracking it. It’s foolish to assume that writers trained for quantity over quality and those who have never cracked a journalism textbook understand what is ethically required in today’s cut/paste, click-here culture.

Which is why we need journalists. It is not enough to read the same news story, rewritten 100 different ways. It is vital to have people looking for original content that tells the story of a company, individual or community. Yes, there are incidents of highly-trained professionals erring and plagiarizing work. Most people in the journalism business, however, find ways to get everything done and stick by their ethics — no matter what.

This is no small feat with pressure coming from digital and print management. The average news writer has gone from enterprising a story for a print edition to also being responsible for editing it to fit an online format, promoting it through social media and attaching multimedia options like photo galleries and videos. Many “beats” have also merged in recent years, meaning that the coverage area for some reporters has doubled, tripled or more. What’s worse is that despite the extra effort, the public’s view of the importance of journalists is dwindling. It seems that with so much information at everyone’s fingertips, everyone is a journalist.

It’s important to remember that journalists hold themselves to higher standards — whether the general public realizes it or not. Regurgitating a story is not enough. Finding international, national, or local news and what it means to a particular group is what the best journalism is all about. Instead of cheering the demise of media corporations, people everywhere should grieve because it means that there are fewer trained people fighting for a well-informed public.

The next five years will prove pivotal for the journalism industry as a whole. Will large corporations like Tribune and small hometown newspapers be able to keep up with a news-ravenous public? Can they stay on top of the technology needed to reach readers on their computers, phones and tablets? Can they do all of this and still maintain a high level of reporting excellence?

Share your thoughts.

Image: Not so lonely Londoners

Katie Parsons is a part-time writer for ChamberofCommerce.com. She specializes in business news affecting major markets in the U.S. ChamberofCommerce.com helps small businesses grow their business on the web and facilitates connectivity between local businesses and more than 7,000 Chambers of Commerce worldwide. She has spent time working for major media news outlets in Chicago and Orlando.

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