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.

13 comments:

suburbancorrespondent said...

I didn't even know they had journalists in China. I mean, do they have a free press? Really?

cktirumalai said...

As a life-long newspaper addict (there even was a time when I used to look at three newspapers a day), I am already converted. And newspapers can write about anything under the sun--and these days about it as well, learnedly. I owe my later education in health matters to them.
At the University of Pennsylvania, one of my Professors had written a doctoral dissertation on the seventeenth-century forerunners of the newpaper in England (1929).

mark from alexandria said...

I'm just heading over to our Public Affairs office to hug the former journos that toil there. But before I go, I just wanted to say that I long for the days when there were multiple local papers to read. New York still sort of has it, with the big 4. But here in DC, we just have The Post and the Diocesan paper of the Unification Church.

Leigh Russell said...

Hi John, I enjoyed your post but you've given me a slight problem now. What if the journalist doesn't want to be hugged by a complete stranger? You see my dilemma. Should I forge on regardless, in the interests of demonstrating my (serious) support for a free press and (likewise genuine) admiration for the work of professional journalists (we all know which sort of journalists I'm excluding)?

A plenary catheter does have a certain ring to it....

The Golden Age - as a teacher I remember it well, but gone are the days when pupils (and their parents) showed respect for the poor members of my profession. Several of my colleagues and I (but not those fresh out of college) often bemoan the current state of affairs. Things ain't what they used to be.

I was with you all the way, John, until you wrote about informed choices and wise decisions. That was a speculation too far, I thought. But perhaps you intended to exclude politicians from your wishful thinking. Then it could work.

I'd like to feel I could contribute to your happiness but having already eaten rather well tonight, I don't feel inclined to bite a dog. Not today, anyway. Sorry.

dan said...

John, good post. I am in Taiwan. They do have journalists in Taiwan, a free country, independent of communist CHINA, but CHINA does not have any journalists, everything is controlled there by the Communist Party of USSR, er, USSRCHINA. Sigh. Watch the fireworks during the 2008 Olypmpics in Beijing as the free world sees the real China there. And bring a bible with you, even though they are prohibited...

My take on newspapers: in 50 years they will be gone in print on paper, but they will exist online as computers make print papers into dinosaurs. Well, if not 50 years, 150 years for sure. So nothing lasts forever. Not to mention the fact that global warming, polar cities, will doom us all sooner or later.

John Kelly said...

I've never known a journalist who, deep down, under that crusty exterior, didn't want to be hugged. I take that back. There was one. I hugged him anyway.

As I've often said of the Good Old Days, you never know you had them until they're gone. Even now, someone somewhere is living in his or her Good Old Days.

Anonymous said...

You know, you had me right until you hyperlinked to a story about the US military. Why that article? It's hardly "news" as it's dated June 18th. If you were merely an observer without opinion - a journalist - then why link to a story that appears to have a negative connotation? Why not uncover a good story instead?

A calloused observer might think you were forwarding an agenda. Does a journalist do that? Does a blogger? People are right to be leery of the media. http://www.carolinajournal.com/mediamangle/display_story.html?id=2753

John Kelly said...

Why that article? Because it's some of the most compelling reporting of the last year, a story that would likely never have emerged without two dogged reporters spending every day at Walter Reed, uncovering things that never should have happened.

Do you think Anne Hull and Dana Priest were "forwarding an agenda" by writing about the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed? I think the soldiers there might not agree.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, in 50 years there will be no newspapers. And movies will make people stop going to see plays, and television will make people stop reading books...come on now.

newspaper user said...

At one time it was theorized that by the turn of the century we would have no more printed books--that everybody would be using electronic readers. Isaac Asimov wrote an essay (whose title I have forgotten, unfortunately)predicting one improvement after another to electronic readers until he has invented--the book!
Besides, without newspapers, what would we put under the cat's litter box or swat a fly with when we can find the fly-swatter?

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