There's a great Far Side comic that's a perfect illustration of Rene Girard's theories about scapegoating.
Wayne, a lonely, bespectacled man, sits in his bedroom. He looks out his window upon a crowd of protesters. They carry signs reading, "DOWN WITH WAYNE" and "WAYNE MUST GO!" The caption reads, "The world was going down the tubes. They needed a scapegoat. They found Wayne."
Journalists often feel much the same way. It's us who take the first wave of anger from a people seething with rage - whether it's about the Middle East, the environment or national politics, it's always the same.
Most of this criticism is cliché. Countless times I've endured the criticism that I've "sensationalized" something - a criticism that's so oft-repeated it has no meaning for me anymore. On other occasions I've been accused of bias, whether by writers to this paper or bloggers who've called me both a "liberal idiot" and a "right wing dumbass." Other times I've seen colleagues frozen out by government agencies simply for doing their jobs.
The best is when subjects of a story come down on you for not knowing enough about what they do, and yet they know nothing about what journalists do. And when you try to explain yourself, they interrupt and tell you everything you're doing is wrong.
Pardon us for trying to tell the truth!
I say this because I think it's time for people to get some insight into how we do our jobs. I'll explain how I do mine. Of course this isn't a model that applies to everyone (and it shouldn't) but it's how I go about my day and you can take from that what you will.
A story can come to you in numerous ways. It can start with anything from a press release to a phone call from an anonymous source or documents left in an unmarked envelope on your doorstep. A "tip" is what we call it in the trade. Others might call them leaks, depending on how they get to the writer.
Sometimes that tip will say there's an important event coming up within the community that paper covers. Other times it's a tip from a political party, usually slamming another.
In a situation like this, it's the journalist's job to seek out the people behind the tip and hear what they have to say in more detail. You're essentially seeking out answers to the five W's and H - who, what, when, where, why and how. Then you follow suit by seeking comment from the "other side" - another political party, perhaps, or whoever's the subject of that tip who might otherwise be offended if you didn't seek their comment.
Sometimes they'll get back to you, sometimes they won't. When they don't, you make a note of it in your story, writing, "so and so did not return a request for comment." If they didn't return multiple calls, you write "so and so did not return requests for comments."
If they're clearly ignoring your inquiries, you write, "so and so did not return multiple requests for comments." And if someone's really annoying you with their elusiveness you write something along the lines of, "despite multiple requests for comment, so and so did not return this reporter's calls." Usually you're lucky enough not to have to do that.
It's regular protocol to thereafter seek out an analyst - a detached, third-party expert who can then provide some more expert commentary on the story at hand. These are the "talking heads" you see on 24-hour news channels or the academics you find at the barrel-bottom of print stories.
I lay this out because I think it's important for journalists to be accountable to their readers. We demand the strictest accountability out of our public officials, there's little reason we shouldn't do the same. We hate it when people stonewall us - again, there's no reason we should do the same, unless you're verbally abusing us.
I also lay this out because seeing the process helps debunk some of the myths about journalism. Yes, there are layabouts in this business, and mistakes get made, whether the spelling of someone's name or a fact here and there. Outside partisan publications like rabble.ca or the Worker's Vanguard, it's rarely done out of malice.
To be quite blunt, there's often little time for bias. When someone lays an accusation of bias against a publication, that theory presumes there's a greedy corporate executive breathing down your neck, telling you how you should spin your story. I've done reporting for Pique, the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun - and that, I can assure you, has never happened to me.
As regards sensationalism, I don't really believe it's a problem. So long as you're telling the truth, there is no problem writing it in a way that attracts readers.
Nitpickers might think Britain's Sun newspaper (the alma mater of one of our reporters here) is sensationalizing when it calls Josef Fritzl, the man who kept his daughter in his basement for almost her entire life, the "dungeon beast." I don't think that's overstating it. This man imprisoned his daughter, raped her and fathered children by her. If that's not "beastly" I don't know what is.
Of course, there's a million opinions on journalism - what it is, and what it should be. But before accusing a journalist of being a biased, sensationalistic acolyte for the evil Canwest empire, I think a little understanding is in order.
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