Thursday, 8 November 2007
Hug a Journalist
You can be excused for not knowing that today, Nov. 8, is Journalist Day. Until yesterday I didn't know it either. True, it's Journalist Day in China, but as there are 1.3 billion people over there I think it would be churlish to ignore it.
In announcing Journalist Day last year (the seventh annual), Chinese Politburo member Liu Yunshan called on journalists to "give top priority to studying the essence of the recent Sixth Plenary Session of the 16th Communist Party of China Central Committee." I get a bit queasy whenever I see the word "plenary" (it sounds too much like a urinary tract infection) so I think I'll mark the day in a different fashion, by thinking about journalism. (I can't really take the day off, since I'm taking the year off.)
We live in interesting times, journalistically speaking. There are more and more ways for the public to get news, from words printed in the newspaper to text zapped to a mobile phone. Golly, I hear there's even a way to get instant news on your computer screen! You don't have to be a media magnate with his own printing press or TV transmitter to join this conversation. Bloggers and citizen journalists can make their own contributions. Are they proper journalists? That's almost beside the point, since they're out there beavering away in all their unstifled glory.
The challenges for companies such as The Washington Post are many: to appeal to readers (or users or viewers) with new and interesting formats that cut through the clutter of modern life and inform even more deeply than newspapers are able to do. It's also to figure out a way to financially support the great news-gathering structures that have taken decades to build: the foreign bureaus, the investigative reporters, the photographers, the editors, the designers, the agate clerks typing in late-night sports scores, the, um, columnists. (On his blog Recovering Journalist, Mark Potts has a very succinct look at the economic complications of this particular puzzle.) These issues are being played out at a time when well-publicized journalistic sins have shaken confidence in the media.
And yet I don't think we should pine for some Golden Age of Journalism. This is a myth perpetrated by old men in comfortable chairs who can't resist talking about how great things were when they were young and vital. (If you ever see me doing this, you have my permission to glass me.) There were plenty of hacks in the old days too, incurious reporters content to go through the motions. If anything, the profession has become more professional and the tools journalists have to tell compelling stories are greater than they've ever been.
So are the risks. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 56 journalists have been killed this year because of their jobs. People like Zakia Zaki, who ran an Afghan radio station and was gunned down in front of her children. And Muhammad Arif, a Pakistan TV cameraman, among the 130 people killed last month by the bomb intended for Benazir Bhutto. And The Washington Post's Salih Saif Aldin, one of 30 journalists killed in Iraq this year. Just yesterday one of my fellow Reuters Fellows, a journalist from Georgia, learned that masked special forces units had entered his TV station on orders of Georgia's president. Elsewhere in Tbilisi news photographers' cameras were smashed, equipment confiscated.
Journalists are risking their lives so that you (and I; I've never even had to work weekends) can know what's going on in the world beyond the end of our street. If we know what's going on--in our council member's office, in our local court, in our congress, in our military, on a barren African plain or in a guerilla camp deep in the jungle--just maybe we'll make informed choices and wise decisions.
So, say a silent prayer today for journalists in harm's way. Think about journalists striving to create a free press in unfree countries. Read a paper. Watch the news. Oh, and bite a dog, too. That always makes us happy.