What has journalism done for you? A lot, actually

At a dinner party a few weeks ago, when the host introduced me to someone, he added that I’m a journalist. It’s the kind of standard issue small talk you do when tendering introductions at parties, right? Except that his pronouncement was followed a sudden silence and an uneasy laugh, and the man slithered his hand out of mine.

‘I’m sure you’re not like those journalists,’ he said, before making his excuses to head off somewhere else. Shortly thereafter I found myself deep in consultation with a paleontologist about fossilized jellyfish, as one so often does, and I sort of forgot about the incident, but it lingered in the back of my mind, still. While members of the media have always been viewed with some trepidation, especially in some circles, a deep antipathy for the media has arisen thanks to the election, and if I may be honest with you, and I may, because this is my dinner party and I bought the server space, I’m getting tired of it.

Here’s the thing: Irresponsible journalism was a persistent problem throughout the election, something that many journalists themselves actually pointed out and begged people to act upon. It’s not like people were deeply secretive about the fact that the way we make and consume news is very broken, or like no journalists anywhere ever were crying foul about how politics were reported in 2016.

A lot of people liked to blame that on a sweeping ‘the media,’ but the truth is more complicated. The media presents information people want to see in formats they want to consume it in, because when they don’t, people refuse to consume it. People made a choice when they started frequenting sites like the Huffington Post, which don’t pay journalists, aggregate random content, and post endless streams of clickbait. They make a choice when they hit ‘Which Disney Princess are You?’ instead of Buzzfeed’s thoughtful, long form, investigative journalism. They make a choice when they bleat about paywalls and how the media is keeping things from them. These are choices that you, the public, make.

I see a great deal of sniping and rage about how the media is useless, and I have to ask: Where do you get your information? How do you find out about things that are happening in the world? How do you judge the veracity of that information? I am not being patronising or snarky, I am genuinely curious.

Because let me tell you where I get my information about things that are happening outside my sphere: The media. I get it through the journalists who pore through decades worth of FOIAs to tease out information for investigative pieces. I get it from people who went underground in meat packing plants and jails and Amazon distribution centers and tech companies to report on conditions from the inside. I get it from people who have spent hundreds of hours interviewing people, transcribing those interviews, and pulling them together into a lively, personable feature. I get it from people who have risked their lives reporting all around the world, from people who have gone to jail rather than give up sources. I get it from people who saw an interesting thing one day and decided to dig deeper and tell other people about it. I get it from Reveal and Rewire and the New York Times and the Atlantic and yes also from Buzzfeed.

What do journalists do for you? We harness an incredibly amazing skillset to hunt down and present relevant information. Some truly great journalists are out there doing outstanding work, whether they’re print or broadcast, photojournalists or videographers, and they are doing it because they, like you, believe that information shouldn’t be hidden, that the public should be made aware of issues of imperative general interests.

They think it’s important for you to know about the rape of undocumented farm workers in California. The exploitation of intellectually disabled men by a turkey factory in Iowa. The development of harsh restrictions on reproductive rights in Texas. The shackling of labouring women across the United States. They think it’s important to delve into the dark and secretive parts of the Trump Administration even as they fear the risks of doing so. They want you to know how your food is grown and who grows it. That public infrastructure across the country is failing and endangering people. That corporations are not paying taxes. There are huge number of things that I wouldn’t know about if it weren’t for the fact that a journalist said ‘hey, this is interesting and perhaps worrying, I want to look into it more’ and that journalist’s editor said ‘yeah, let’s run with it.’

There are brilliant commentators who make the world a broader, better, brighter place. There are people doing amazing work in the field of criticism, whom I read religiously because they enhance my understanding of media and pop culture. There are people making great policy proposals and talking about economics and advocating on issues I care about and I learn things from them every day.

Journalists don’t have a monopoly on these things. I read lots of people who don’t consider themselves journalists, and just want to talk about things. I’m constantly encountering ordinary citizens who have been able to push things to the fore via social media (where they’ve often been picked up and put on a national stage by, you guessed it, journalists). Those people play a vital and critical role and their work should never be devalued.

But I’m really tired of hiring you trash journalists. I’m tired of hearing you say ‘oh, I mean those other journalists’ or ‘the editors’ or whoever else. I am honoured and privileged and proud to work with amazing journalists, editors, fact checkers, copyeditors, and support staff from all over the world. Every day. Their amazing professionalism and attention to detail and commitment to conveying information is something that serves as a constant challenge and reminder for me — I can and will and should do better. To see people dismissively trashing ‘the media’ as a whole is so heartbreaking for me that I’m not sure I can adequately convey my level of dismay.

Because we do need a reform in the media, and many of the people I work with and for would absolutely agree with that and are in fact pushing for that reform. And part of that reform also means a reform in readers, who need to start valuing the work that we do and, yes, putting their money where their sniping mouths are — because if you want better journalism, and a more responsible media, you need to pay for it, and you need to reward publications that you think are doing it right.

Image: Al Jazeera English Newsroom, Paul Keller, Flickr