Thursday, May 13, 2010

Peoria newspaper editor thinks citizen journalists have just too damn much frfeedom

As managing editor of the Peoria Journal Star, John Plevka runs a newsroom in which reporters are not allowed to exercise their right to free speech.

It's true. Seriously. If you get a paycheck for work you do as a reporter, editor or photographer, you can get in fired for doing things like wearing a campaign button, signing a petition or putting a campaign sign on your yard. And these aren't restrictions that apply in the workplace. You can't do these things on your own time on your own property.

And a reporter for a mainstream media organization certainly cannot walk up to a microphone during give the city council Hell, heaven forbid.

But that is exactly what citizen journalist C.J. Summers did this week. And on his j-blog, Plevka went on the attack:

Based on the passion with which Summers writes and speaks, it’s clear he genuinely cares about what is best for this community. However, stepping up to the microphone to opine while a public body is in deliberation is not what journalists do – at least not those who wish to be taken seriously. Journalists chronicle history, they do not willingly make it. Period.

This practice is a bedrock journalism standard and, even as our communications world evolves at lightning speed, it cannot be compromised. While I understand that citizen journalists play by looser rules, it seems to me the impact of their message would be greater if they were more respectful of this fundamental standard. Failure to do so looks more like old-fashioned yapping into a microphone and less like the advancement of valuable information and analysis. Bottom line, I’m not clear how the approach saves the republic.

The only real journalism is committed by those who keep their mouths shut. How absolutist of Plevka. It's classic mainstream media arrogance. Our way is best. All the time. No exceptions.

Trouble is, the assertion doesn't bear up under scrutiny.

Consider that classic investigative journalism got its start with muckraking novelists like Upton Sinclair who wrote The Jungle, an expose of the American meatpacking industry that helped get needed reforms passed.

And there is muckraking photojournalist and social reformer Jacob Riis, who helped reform housing conditions in New York City.

Riis and Sinclair certainly did more than just chronicle history. I would say both helped make it.

More recently, there were journalists like Studds Turkel, who won the Pulitzer Prize and was no stranger to political causes.

Jack Newfield used his column in the New York Post to take on abusive government officials and businesses. He also was a liberal college activist and close friends with Robert Kennedy.

Objectivity a "bedrock journalism standard?" Bull. Complete and utter bull. It doesn't stand up to any examination of the facts.

The whole idea that journalists must remain objective and never, ever state their opinion was not conceived as a way to create good journalism, but as as way to support a business model, namely that the millionaires who can afford printing presses can get more readers and sell more ads by marketing themselves as trusted news sources.

And while bosses enforce rigid, restrictive rules demand9ing objectivity from reporters, they see no problem running unsigned editorials that are supposed to reflect the newspaper's institutionalized opinion. Editorial writers are mo0re often than not hired because they can be counted on to reflect the owner's political viewpoint.

And let's not kid ourselves. Throughout United Stated history, newspapers have been identified by the public as favoring one party or another to some degree. This preference is evident on the editorial page, of course. But the reporting is also affected. That's why you don't see a lot of reporting that makes President Obama look good in the pages of the Washington Times.

And it's also why all the recent reporting about the Kellar Branch (the subject of C.J. Summer's address) discusses the project in glowing terms and bemoans all the unfortunate delays that kept it from becoming as reality even sooner.

No rational person thinks this sham promotes better journalism. True objectivity is a process, by which reporters and editors work together to make sure all sides are covered, that the data is correct and that an effort is made to provide information from sources who themselves lack bias. Objectivity cannot be achieved by pretending reporters and editors have a switch in their heads that turns off their preconceptions and political points of view.

Cross posted to Peoria Pundit.

Newspapers can silence their reporters' voices, but they cannot turn off their brains.

Citizen journalism differs from mainstream journalism in that transparency is a guiding principal, not objectivity. That makes it a different kind of journalism, not a broken form, as Plevka insists. It's a form of journalism like that performed by Sinclair, Riis, Newfield and Turkel. The point of view of the reporter is out in the open, giving readers the opportunity to make an evaluation of the reporter's honesty and fairness without having to play guessing games.



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