Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sad Times for Journalists

We live in a Through–the–Looking–Glass kind of world — where everything is the opposite of what it should be.

I tend to see that contradictory nature most vividly in my field of study, journalism — or, put in more general terms, communication.

Sometimes I look back on the scope of my life, and it takes my breath away to realize how much things have changed — I mean everything.

When I was growing up, we had three TV networks. Today, we have hundreds of options.

When I was in graduate school and I had research to do, I had to go to the university library, and I might spend days looking for one item. I guess you still need to spend some time in the library, but today, a lot of that legwork can be done from the comfort of your home with your laptop or desktop computer.

When I was a child, I expected it to take hours, days, maybe weeks to get a response to an inquiry about something. Today, people get agitated if takes more than a few minutes.

Modern people seem to think it is their right to have immediate access to any information they want whenever they want it — but they forget (if they ever really acknowledged it to begin with) that someone still has to do the dirty work.

With the entire world seemingly in turmoil — never mind the political squabbling in this country (and the only thing new about that is probably the intensity, which is a byproduct of all the information delivery methods that are available to us today) — it may never have been more important to have good, experienced journalists on the ground where events are unfolding.

Modern technology makes it possible for those journalists to transmit their findings halfway around the globe in a matter of minutes, if not seconds — but that doesn't change the fact that they put their lives on the line to do it.

And sometimes they lose those lives.

This morning, news reaches these shores that an American journalist and a French journalist have been killed in heavy shelling in Syria.

I don't know if much will be made of their deaths in this country. The American journalist was interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CNN hours before her death, but neither was a household name here.

Neither, for that matter, was Anthony Shadid, a New York Times journalist who died recently of an apparent asthma attack while covering the conflict in Syria.

Shadid's death got some notice in this country, mostly from other journalists who were familiar with the two–time Pulitzer Prize–winner's work.

But it was overshadowed by the extensive coverage of the death of pop star Whitney Houston.

I'm not sure what that says about our national priorities (and I mean no disrespect to Houston — 48 is too young for anyone to die).

But it can't be good.

Too many people are under the mistaken impression that citizen journalists with no training in journalism can do the job as well as professional journalists can.

Whenever I hear people saying that the man in the street, equipped with a laptop, can gather news efficiently and adequately, I want to ask something like this:
  • Would you permit a citizen doctor to perform surgery on you?

  • Would you trust a citizen architect to design your home or workplace?
As the son (and grandson) of trained educators, there was a time when I included citizen teacher on that list, too — but Rick Santorum has taken some of the wind out of those sails.

It isn't that I agree with Santorum. I don't. And I believe the decline in national standards that would inevitably result from a mass decision to home school a majority of American children would prove my point.

But Santorum is riding the crest of a semi–popular position — so it isn't an effective argument for me at the moment.

Still, it doesn't change the fact that it has always taken training to do the demanding jobs the way they need to be done.

There can be no more demanding job, I think, than reporting from a war zone.

The training and experience those three journalists had was invaluable — and their loss cannot be measured.

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