I was in high school and beginning my journalism career when news of the Watergate scandal broke.
Between reading a major metro newspaper and Time magazine, and occasionally catching the TV broadcasts, I learned as the story unfolded — along with other Americans — about the connection between the June 1972 break-in at the Democrat National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the administration of then-President Richard Nixon.
Until Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, the journalists and editors involved in the investigative reporting were mostly criticized for their efforts. A disbelieving public was rocked by the exposure of the calculated callousness of the highest leader in the U.S.
I remember feeling both conflicted and gratified during this period of time. I was conflicted because I was considering a profession that many people mistrusted. Between coverage of the Vietnam War and Nixon, more than 40% of the public did not trust the media, according to a poll at the time.
On the other hand, I felt gratified because I was witnessing the positive aspects of a free press playing out. Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at The Washington Post delved tenaciously for facts and worked hard to corroborate what they learned before publishing. Unsurprisingly, the number of students majoring in journalism at colleges across the country was at an all-time high in 1974.
At some point during my senior year in high school, however, I began to question if I should enter the field of journalism, given the bad rap the profession was getting. One Sunday morning, I asked my Sunday school leader about it. She could tell I was wrestling with this, and she gave me a simple, positive reply: Have integrity in what you do. Tell what is true. That will be God-honoring.
Maintaining public's trust
I have taken that to heart and still strive to follow her advice. Journalists like myself have been taught to be accurate, seek truth, be objective and get both sides of a story. I know there are times I have fallen short, and I’ve heard so from readers.
Over the years, I’ve known a lot of journalists — some very good, some not so thorough. I believe most of them are like me: We do the best we can. We must in order to maintain the public’s trust.
That said, I do feel like journalism ethics for some media have slipped over the past few decades. I see it more so in TV news. Some regular broadcasts are a bit fluffy in their daily coverage and rely on entertainment or soft feature stories. “Going to the lake” comes to mind — one of the metro news stations’ summertime features. I’d like to see more investigative reporting or hard news.
I do not care for network news anchors providing a comment after nearly every segment either. Sometimes it sounds like editorializing. I’d prefer to hear a simple “thank you” from the news anchor and then move on. Let me rest in my thought or opinion after watching that report.
Another area I believe where the media have become murky is the blurring of lines between news and commentary. As a writer, I wear several hats — that of reporter, columnist or editorial writer and blogger. Only the reporter is the true journalist. In that role, we report just the facts. Keep that in mind.
And of course, media are available 24/7, from outlets ranging from liberal to conservative extremes. This does not foster social health. We get into our own silos and hear what we want to hear.
So why am I writing about journalism now?
I am very tired and frustrated by our current president’s incessant tirade against what he labels as “fake news.” His name-calling, mocking and bullying are utterly reprehensible and embarrassingly below the station of his office. Yet even more despairing to me — and scary — is the recent treatment of journalists by his supporters at his rallies. The hostility shown by some was shameful.
People take their cues from leadership, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Really, though, it was a new low.
Freedom of speech is one of our nation’s founding principles. It’s one of our precious freedoms that we must not take for granted.
I do not. I hope you do not, too.