Pop v. reality: Journalism

I’ve been having a lot of conversations in the last year about the public distrust and sometimes active hatred of the media — at the same time that the New York Times is raking in subscription dollars and every media outlet has an annoying popup nagging me to defend the future of journalism, I keep getting sidelong glances and suspicious looks when people find out I’m a journalist, as though something dirty has slunk into the middle of the party to stink up the joint. The roots of those attitudes come from a lot of places, but I’ve been thinking lately about how many people don’t really know what it is that journalists actually do, because they get their cues from pop culture, and pop culture isn’t always the most accurate and informative.

I’ve noticed that many pop culture journalists seem to be quite fetching, and they spend a lot of time at keyboards with montages and inspiring music. Or they’re bravely holding the line when people are demanding information about sources. Or they’re meeting in shadowy parking garages to pick up leaked information from mysterious figures. It all seems very glamourous, really, in the grand scheme of things, you know?

But that’s…not actually what it’s like? I actually spend the vast majority of my time doing things other than writing, and gathering information isn’t a handwave and a quick phone call away. We’re spending hours on the phone chasing people down and trying to wring quotes out of them. We’re hunting the abysses of websites to gather information, sure, but we’re also going to physical archives, requesting back copies of things, and filing FOIA requests. This is all stuff that would be incredibly boring to watch or read about — ‘our heroic girl reporters spend six months waiting for a response on an FOIA’ isn’t really an inspiring scene, you know?

And the writing — sure, at some point we actually have to sit down and sort through this information and turn it into something readable and valuable. But we don’t just turn it in and have done. There’s the back and forth with editors, which can stretch through days or weeks depending on the piece, and sometimes makes you want to tear your hair out and scream with frustration. Then there are copyeditors, going through to ensure you conform with publication style and inevitably finding some snarled mess you have to pick apart. And, if you work for a decent publication, fact checkers, who greatly appreciate it when the information you provide is accurate, backed with citations, and presented in accurate context. I’ve discussed things as minute as which conjunction to use when talking with fact checkers. They don’t mess around when they do their jobs well.

This is all stuff that again is incredibly boring, but also provides incredibly valuable insight into the work of a newsroom. It’s not just a renegade bold journalist striking out into the unknown and writing thrilling articles. It’s actually a highly collaborate process that benefits from a lot of input at various steps of the way, and something that wouldn’t be possible without it. I am a better writer because of the editors I work with, even if we frustrate each other sometimes. My work would not be what it is without them. I don’t consider them my enemies, nor do I resent their work, but sometimes I see editors positioned as evil taskmasters in pop culture. I embrace the copyeditors who make sure my work is clean and help me look professional. I adore the fact checkers and their incredibly thoughtful, detailed work — they have absolutely saved me from looking like a complete ass on more than one occasion. (Especially with numbers, because sometimes I transpose them, and that can make for, you know, problems.)

Sure, sometimes journalism is fast and sloppy, dashing to get a breaking story settled in time for it to go to press, racing to rewrite the script for a news or radio programme, and that is thrilling and fun and exciting and stressful and amazing. But it’s often not the bulk of what people do, and in some cases, people don’t really do it at all. Not everyone is involved in breaking news. There are some people who aren’t even interested in that!

This is a complicated, demanding field with a lot of moving pieces. Pop culture is simplistic by nature, and can’t show all of those, and can’t really convey the nuances of the daily life of newsrooms, or the offices of freelancers. I can’t entirely fault pop creators for skipping over some details or working around others, but it is a reminder that when you see professions on television, in movies, on the pages of books, there’s probably a lot that you are missing. And that’s okay! But it’s also a good idea to step back and consider that when making critical comments about various fields of endeavor. Spies aren’t like the people you see in movies. Doctors don’t actually practice like they do on television. Building a drug empire doesn’t happen like pop culture creators might lead you to believe it does. And while there’s a big conversation to be had about the media and how it functions and who makes important decisions, that needs to be mediated by fact and reality, rather than popular perception. Maybe we need to do a better job of conveying what it is we actually do — or maybe people actually need to listen when we’re trying to do just that.

Image: Mistress of Time, Kris Vera-Phillips, Flickr