McGuire on Media

Advocacy and self-interested journalism are inevitable, but what are the consequences?

Just last week I told  the students of my 21st Century Journalism class at least 30-40% of them would one day work for organizations that don’t do journalism now.

I have been telling other classes the same thing for the last three or four years. I have never found the statement particularly bold or outrageous. It seems quite logical to me that as mainstream news outlets (read newspapers) fade into a misty, romantic future, the vacuum for news and information will have to be filled.

The mostly likely new occupants of that space will be organizations deeply committed to causes, deep pocket organizations with brands to protect, or franchises who feel wronged by the independent bluntness of the old news world.

You can already see signs of upheaval in the traditional delivery and presentation of news and it is painfully clear to me that we need to think more deeply about what really happens if companies such as Ford Motor Company or Pfizer Pharmaceuticals or even non-profits with lofty social goals, decide to start news sites.

Three events this past week stimulated my thinking on the subject.

The first was a proposal from some Cronkite School freshmen who wanted to start a school sanctioned “advocacy journalism” site. They wrote that they wanted to “aim to raise public awareness of certain (advocacy) issues through a variety of multimedia platforms.” It seemed obvious to me their plan had an ideological goal.

When another faculty member asked me my opinion, I said I clearly think this sort of thing will be part of the journalistic future. Naturally he followed up and wondered if I would mentor the group. It was immediately clear to me I wanted nothing to do with that. So there I was, choking on my hypocrisy.

The students quickly realized they were on a mighty slippery slope and withdrew their request, but  in my estimation we, and other journalism schools only have a temporary reprieve.

It is pretty clear to me we are going to have to come to grips with whether and how we are going to prepare journalists for an an inevitable future of working for non-traditional journalism organizations.

I am still comfortable with the Kovach and Rosenstiel definition that says journalism must provide  “independent, reliable, comprehensive and accurate information that allows citizens to be free.” Most knee-jerk traditionalists, perhaps like me, would look at that definition and say there is simply no way an advocacy journalist can be independent, reliable etc.

My colleague across the Cronkite School Hall, Dan Gillmor, will be shocked to learn I actually listen to him when he sings the praises of advocacy journalism. This piece cites several examples Dan finds admirable. Dan believes the expertise, quality of research and depth provided by advocacy sites makes them worth reading even if they come with a point of view. 

Two sports incidents last week made it particularly clear to me  that some special interest reporting is losing sight of some of the most basic journalistic principles.

At the University of Southern California the captain of the football team injured his ankles. With all the foresight one can expect from a 20 year-old kid, the player told his coaches he hurt his ankles rescuing his nephew from drowning. The truth while still not clear, is substantially different from that feel good tale.

The kid’s unsurprising lie took on national significance when the sports information staff of USC produced a story that quacked like journalism with quotes, lively storytelling and a whiff of clear journalism certainty.  Unfortunately many mainstream news organizations picked up the USC story before their appropriately skeptical reporters took over.      

The USC sports information department has been busy throwing the young man under every bus in Hollywood contending they asked penetrating questions but the plain truth is they didn’t independently check out the story. Verification is the essence of journalism and these journalistic wannabes  couldn’t take the most basic step. If “house journalists’ can’t  remember that if your mother tells you something, check it out, then the coming journalism vacuum could be filled with dreck, especially if mainstream news organizations suck up everything they are given. 

And some organizations are anxious to create that main-stream media vacuum. At Miami’s Florida International University a besieged athletic director named Pete Garcia has refused to credential the one full-time beat reporter from the Miami Herald. That reporter has clearly been contentious and aggressive and God love him for it. Here is a video David J. Neal did that is hilarious and indicting at the same time. That’s real journalism, holding FIU’s feet to the fire.

When the Miami Herald rightfully decided to refrain from covering the game, FIU was indignant when they faulted the paper, saying other Herald reporters were credentialed. I hope the Herald sticks to its guns and refuses to let FIU determine who covers them. FIU apparently doesn’t realize thousands of organizations before them have tried the same trick.

As mainstream journalism loses its once vaunted power, tricks like USC’s and FIU’s are going to become common place according to Butch Ward. Media organizations need to keep protesting and they certainly need more skepticism about the work output of these pseudo-journalistic operations.

But journalism educators and watchdog organizations like Poynter, SPJ, ASNE and API need to give serious consideration to a set of standards for journalists employed by non-traditional news producers.