In high school I was an editor for the school paper, features as it happens. This was the best job ever. Not only did it look good on college applications, include fabulous experience, and get me straight into J-school at a prestigious university but it was also loads of fun and very glamorous.
Our newspaper teacher took the newspaper very seriously. The side benefit was that Mr. G decided that even though we were teenagers, we would learn to run with the big dogs. He got us press passes and invites to real Media Events. For example, I went to movie screenings and got interviews with real Movie Stars. We covered not just school events, but community and real news, too.
Back then, you typed stories on a typewriter, sent them off to the typesetter, who sent back long, wound reels of copy. As an editor, I not only handed out assignments, ran many myself, and reviewed articles, I also did the layout for my section.
This involved generating headlines (and you can believe I knew my picas and never let a word or letter dangle sloppily, wasting valuable real estate), clipping the columns, and then carefully laying them out on the sheet (with help from the light table) before sending them out to print.
This was more than a job; it was an art.
There were no quick fixes, spell checks, or easy changes. When you sent off to the typesetter, the money meter started running. Therefore, before then, your articles better be aces. No factual errors. No typos. No crap.
My headlines were exact. My columns were perfectly aligned. I knew how to calculate a lower case n versus an upper case M. I knew the importance of measuring and divvying up column lengths. I knew how many words filled how many inches.
Later, as an editor at a publishing house, my page count estimates from rough to final were always the most exact. This comes from the old journalism calculating background.
Newspaper wasn't a hobby. This wasn't for fun. This was real news, folks. And we took it as seriously as our teacher taught us to.
Our stories were reporting. We took the story, wrote it factually, then double-checked the facts. Our goal was to provide information. Mr. G. counseled us over and over about never, ever being in it for fame, for glory, for salacious gossip.
I still remember him admonishing us to report report report...not guess. Not titallate. Not speculate. Educate and inform. Period.
I went to college with this old-style exacting mindset as far as journalism went. And that is nothing at all like what I found. Ultimately, I transferred to another college within the university.
I left for a variety of reasons: youthful arrogance and frustration about being taught the basics again when I felt I had already mastered them, disgust with the casual and sloppy attitudes of my peers, calls from my other love (science) and a newfound appreciation for learning, which I discovered as fun again.
I can't let go of the corner of journalist in my heart, though. I absolutely will not read certain papers for their incredibly sloppy reporting, horrid typos, and pathetic headlines (with widows and orphans, no puns intended).
And I can't let go of the ethics Mr. G hammered into us time and again.
That's why I watch this sensationalistic newstainment with such horror. Reporters aren't informing or educating us any longer; they are manipulating and inflaming us.
(And worse...they are attacking their harshest critics and largest competition: bloggers.)
They throw in prurient details to hook rubberneck attention. That's not just reporting; that's not the public's right to know.
That's actually capitalism. And I'm sick to death of "free speech" and "public's right to know" being thrown out to support a greedy grab for attention, and thus earn more money for the paper through wider readership.
I know how cut-throat the business of journalism is. I know how competitive. I understand economic principles, and I understand how advancing media has threatened traditional means of news delivery.
This isn't journalism.
This is yellow journalism.
For example, recently an office building in Houston burned down, killing three people and injuring six, including three firefighters attempting to rescue people trapped in the building. The initial story was actual reporting: an office building in Houston is on fire...it's at X location...the fire was discovered and reported at X time...it is currently a four alarm blaze with X number of firetrucks on the scene...the cause is unknown as is whether anybody is left in the building...firefighters are in the building and trying to determine if everyone has evacuated. Who. What. Where. When. Why. How.
Very quickly, reporters learned that there were six injuries from the fire, and three fatalities. They reported this.
And reported it. And reported it. They pre-empted the news and subsequent programming for a while to stand beside the burning building, showing the scene. They talked and talked, speculating, frantically grabbing witnesses, firefighters, anyone. They began saying anything to fill the airwaves and time. They panned the same scene over and over.
The next step in the story is where the ethics come: what more do YOU need to know? What more do you have a right to know?
Do you need to know the names of the people killed and injured? Do you need to see pictures/images of them, alive and dead or injured? Do you need to know who they left behind, the status of their life, where they lived? Do you need to hear snippets of opinions about the sort of people they were?
Is this a memorial? A tribute? Reporting? Do we have a right to know?
Or is it emotional manipulation for our attention, our market share?
See, one reporter released the information that one of the women killed in the fire had a daughter, a minor, who had been sexually molested. The mother, now deceased, had been scheduled to testify as a key witness in the case the next day. The poor traumatized daughter became an intense focus of predatory interest. Again. This time, legally. This time, by reporters and the public.
I admit it. I had been about to tune out until I heard that. Then I tuned back in. My stomach flipped. And flopped. I felt nauseated. I got choked up. I thought about that little girl. I thought about that mother. My mother's heart shattered, thinking of what her mother must have thought, knowing she was leaving that girl behind, in this situation. I became emotionally invested in the situation. I tuned in to learn more about how this could have happened, who was responsible. I listened to interviews and read stories. I paid attention. I cared.
I followed up. Alarms didn't sound, people didn't get a warning, many were trapped and had to be rescued by ladders:
Dawn Herring was in a fourth floor office when the fire started and said she never heard an alarm.
"We didn't realize there was a fire going on until I heard somebody scream," Herring told CNN Thursday. When she and her colleagues tried to leave, they found the hallways and both stairways filled with smoke.
"We had no other choice but to go back into the office," Herring said. "We finally broke a window and we waited and waited. It seemed like forever for the fire department to bring the ladder over to our window.
I researched building code (via my husband) and was appalled to learn that buildings don't have to update to any kind of current codes due to a loophole. There weren't adequate alarms or sprinklers in the building, but it was all legal. They had just passed inspection. The building management company released a statement, basically declaring themselves innocent of any responsibility. The mayor of the city also released a statement, in response to public outcry and concern about safety in other buildings, promising to work to upgrade safety requirements and ensure the safety of his citizens.
Spin. Spin. Spin.
Mostly, I felt disgust. I felt a tremendous amount of disgust for the reporter who released details about the child who lost her mother.
And yet, possibly this tragedy will motivate and galvanize improvements, prevent other tragedies. I somehow doubt it, but possibly. At the least, some building management companies might decide to mitigate risk and add additional fire and smoke detectors on their own. Insurance companies might decide to require it for premium holders.
But did we need to know about that little girl? Did we need to know so many personal details? Was that necessary to care, to take action?
Where is that line between avaricious, harmful gossip intended to titallate and gain market share versus report to inform and educate?
In my opinion, the story should have stopped with the fire itself: where, when, why, and how. The how is provoking enough: a nurse at a cosmetic surgery office deliberately set fire to medical records in a crazy attempt to save her job because she hadn't completed required paperwork for a March 29 audit.
I'm not even sure we needed to name the people lost, although sentiment says it can be a fine tribute. I would hate it though. I would hate to see my loved one's name and face on the news, being sold to a hungry public. But I do understand how names and faces make it real, and lend weight to possibly needed changes to prevent other tragedies.
However, the buck needs to stop there.
Set the bottom line aside. Report ethically, in a quality way. The drive for continuous and instantaneous is probably not half as important as any of us think it is. I imagine if you create a quality product, market share will happen...anyway.
copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
Tags: Houston office building fire, reporting, journalism, and news media, ethics and standards in reporting