A Charge to the Future of Journalism

Sandinista soldiers return home. Road to Leon, Nicaragua, 1987 by S. L. Frady

I made my first serious advance into the world of journalism at age 16, as an intern at Magnum Photos, in New York in 1987. I had just returned to New York from a 10-day socio-political tour of Nicaragua, and my assignment at Magnum was to catalogue all of Philip Jones Griffiths’ contact sheets from his work on the Vietnam War, from 1966 to 1972, into the agency’s new computer system.

As I progressed through each story, matching years and contact sheet numbers to Philip’s original handwritten notes (68–10, New Life at Song Tra; 67–4, Zippo Squads, roughly remembered), I found that the contact sheets themselves afforded a closeness to the truth of the Vietnam experience than any other record of the war I had ever seen. No documentary, Hollywood film version, news article, photo essay, or any other public expression of the war was as visceral as these unedited images, appearing exactly as they were recorded by Philip in those moments. I began to sense that news content was overproduced, and thus comparably untrustworthy and disengaging — a betrayal of the complex nature of the truth — which has led to the polarization of society through social media’s dumbing down facts into bite-sized clicks of entertainment.

Thirty years later, while living in China working as a freelance editorial and commercial photographer, I would often congregate with other expats, many of them journalists. Some were contracted with agencies like EPA, Reuters, or Getty (as I was), and others were successful freelancers with previous affiliations like CNN or Newsweek. The subject of our conversations would range from best practices in dealing with Chinese sources, whether anyone have a contact for the Vanity Fair editor because “I have a bunch of photographs of North Korean refugees,” or how much a particular fixer in Bangkok might charge for setting up sources for a story on the sex trade. Oftentimes our mutual concerns would center on the structure of the news process, such as an agency’s requirement to produce daily images, few of which were eventually selected to run with a story. The corporatization of news media was another popular subject.

As we looked at how the news was created, we would always find that no matter what stories we produced, they would always be subject to a news organization’s approval. The criteria affecting that decision, we would always agree, was not always relevant to the public interest.

Yet perhaps the greatest influence on how news is created today is the proliferation of advanced communications technology. The emergence of adaptive measures such as iReport and a host of other efforts to scour social media for more relevant newsworthy content (from reporting on the Arab Spring to sites like Reddit, Storyful, and Storify) is just the beginning. An early attempt at online citizen journalism, Indymedia.org, is currently restructuring, but hosts a series of localized sites. Although viewed as “far left” from a political spectrum perspective, its efforts are no different than those of sites like phibetaiota.net, The Drudge Report, or any other site looking to aggregate news relevant to the public interest — outside the “establishment” news organization system.

There are ethical aspects of journalism which are intrinsic to its purpose — credibility, timeliness, and importance to the public among them. Yet incorporating these values seamlessly into reporting is a constant challenge. Is this merely a symptom of ourselves as people, because our nature is inherently subject to imperfect moralities? If so, is there a way to overcome it, for the sake of journalism’s purpose?

Some have advanced the option of automated news delivery, by what are in essence, algorithms.

The robot-human debate notwithstanding, the largest growth sector in another area of more significant growth, software as a service (SaaS), is content, communication and collaboration. Aside from news consumers’ characteristic desire for immediacy, this fact, corroborated by the popularity of social media as an emerging platform for news consumption bears indication of a thirst for first-hand accounts over processed news. (Sites such as press-feed.com and SocialNewsDesk are busy connecting news organizations with social media outlets, and managing that output.) This neutralized personal view (ironically achieved in spite of linguistic attempts to sanitize reporting into a disinterested approach) is no different from my own reaction to Philip Jones Griffiths’ contact sheets of the Vietnam War.

As it is defined in the U.S. Constitution, the necessity of the press to remain unregulated by government establishes it permanently as a moral frontier subject to continuous review and revision. The lack of a clear standard, whether for governing the use of images to avoid offending the public, or an evolving circumstance which may or may not result in a conflict of interest, is one aspect of journalism which guarantees the permanence of moral challenge.

Still, is there a solution?

The existence of bias, fluff, and now technology’s facilitation of speed which unfortunately encourages loss of accuracy and credibility, are all reflections of human nature. We cannot escape our limited individual perspectives, nor the instinctive appeal of a lowest common denominator. Monopoly has been with us as long as news organizations have existed. They operate, in turn, as macro-reflections of the individual instinct for self-preservation.

The vulnerable nature of the digital media space itself can be a discredit to a news organization, without any reporting at all, as the April 23rd AP Twitter hack demonstrated, leading the DOW to plummet 143 points.

The preservation of liberty is itself a never-ending task, just as is the aspiration to report important information crucial to that preservation. Unfortunately, the present logistical format in which news is gathered and presented, as well as the operational characteristics of news organizations, contributes more to inefficiency than efficiency.

One of my closest friends in Beijing was a photographer for European Press Agency. His work required him to produce a series of photographs every day which could be used for articles, or which could be filed into a stock image library for later use.

During a conversation one day, he remarked, “Shannon, you would never guess what amazing thing I photographed today.”

“What was it?” I asked.

“I photographed a woman on a bike,” he said, sarcasm in tow.

The inefficient nature of news gathering is such that news organizations, always open for business, struggle to justify their legitimacy by making news where there is none, even when there may be other more important news happening elsewhere of which they may be incognizant.

This is especially true of television news, which finds itself under constant pressure to get a story out which is important to the public. Like CNN’s blunder in reporting false information following the April 16, 2013 bombings in Boston, news organizations are notoriously plagued by manufactured reports and inaccurate information, just to keep the airwaves filled with their presence. Driven by business interest, news organizations are under pressure to deliver their impossible promise and unattainable legitimacy by being everywhere at once — indeed, a divine, super-human attribute, placing it in the authoritative position to dictate right and wrong.

Most people do in fact buy into this never-ending campaign of news organizations to appear “larger than life” and greater than normal, thus legitimizing an assumption of authority. As people, we tend to need something or someone to look up to, to idolize, to organize our world, bring structure and understanding to it.

Documentarian Adam Curtis notes in his intriguing series “The Century of the Self” that PR icon Edward Bernays intrigued the CIA to facilitate an approach for American media to ensure that what happened in Nazi Germany did not happen in America. In World War Two, “Governments had unleashed the primitive forces in human beings, and no one seemed to know how to stop them.” An increasingly democratized society without a structure that fed their subconscious desires and thus made them docile, it was believed, would result in the horrors witnessed in Nazi Germany.

The instinctive desire for order, whether addressing subconscious desires or not, is even a habit of the brain itself, and it translates into our society on a macro scale. Anyone who provides an order to the world is perceived as a master of it, and is thus deserving of authority.

The self-professed authority of news media organizations is used to confer legitimacy where it might not otherwise be plausible, establishing “experts” and promoting one cause over another, even one report over another. This is an effective technique in establishing a construct of reality which can dictate what the public interest actually is. Insinuative tactics notwithstanding, comments posted on stories on the web often demonstrate that the framing of a story limits inclusion of other important facts. Wanton and irresponsible reporting has led to demonization of entire ethnicities, and an ultimately uninformed public that, for example, most Arabs in America are Christian, not Muslim.

How legitimacy and/or authority are conferred is itself an important issue to address in this inherently flawed system.

In October 1999, I attended a Museum of Modern Art panel discussion involving artist J.S.G. Boggs and The New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean, later portrayed semi-fictitiously by Meryl Streep in the film “Adaptation.” The discussion centered on how people determine what is valuable. Orlean described her experience looking for and finding an orchid in a swamp, later depicted in the film.

Boggs, who draws his own money on paper and then exchanges it for goods and services and provides the exchanger with a receipt, described his art as an examination of how the human spirit works and why we attribute value on one object over another — primarily, that there are more ways to experience the world than through the use of text. In a documentary I later produced on him, he held up a one-dollar bill next to a ten-dollar bill. His point was that because both objects were the same size, weighed the same, were made of the same paper, and were both decorated with portraits, landscapes, and abstract geometrics, there was little to justify the attribution of an exact value between them, if they are not perceived as strictly textual.

This view of the world was not shared by the Secret Service, who, following their urging of Scotland Yard to drop counterfeiting charges on him in England, promptly changed their approach when Boggs returned to the U.S. and in 1990 raided his studio, confiscating hundreds of items, including a pair of his boxer shorts. Also among the items were the same set of drawings previously under dispute in England.

This “hot button,” that was so sensitive to the Secret Service, whose primary investigative mission is to “preserve the integrity of U.S. currency,” that they felt it justified the extreme nature of their reaction. They meanwhile refused to identify what aspect of Boggs’ work they considered to be illegal, and finally destroyed his work.

What is the criteria to determine value? D.W. Wright, Consultant for history archives at J.P. Morgan & Co. commented in an interview:

“But again, you can only infer what the threat is. I mean we don’t know without them telling us. But one can guess that his interest in duplicating the dollar bill or any currency implies to them in their minds that he’s threatening the very basis on which the society is founded. Which would explain the extremity of the measures to which they went, that he was coming dangerously close to undermining something which was a basic building block of the society’s values, that is, the face value of the currency, or the way currency is used or perceived. So, if people start to question the basis on which the basic currency of the culture is empowered, then that really is a societal threat, and that would, I think that would explain some of the extreme reaction to what he did.”

“Mentioning Greenspan is very interesting though because there are people in this country now who feel that Greenspan is more powerful than the President, that, in fact, the country’s being run by an unelected person, the head of the Federal Reserve, who makes the choices that are the most directly connected to our daily lives. So that speaks to something about the perception of, ‘The most important thing in your life is the value of the dollar, and the most powerful person in your daily life is the person who is determining what the value of the dollar is going to be!’ That’s interesting!”

In the same way, news organizations, by assuming and insinuating themselves into a status above the people, are able to create the illusion of legitimacy where they may decide it, an inherently undemocratic procedure.

It is noteworthy that at this writing, on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, the United States ranks 46. There are many examples to illustrate the continued efforts to erode press freedom, and reactions to such efforts, which seem to illustrate a natural adversarial stance between government and news media.

In August 2008, an ABC investigative reporter was arrested for capturing images of senators and “VIP donors” as they left a meeting in Denver. On November 26, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court abstained from hearing an appeal to prevent citizens from recording police officers in Illinois, effectively affirming that Illinois eavesdropping laws violate the First Amendment rights of anyone recording audio of police. More recently, during the search for those responsible for the April 16 bombings in Boston, an ABC News reporter was forced onto the ground and questioned, even though she did not fit the description of the suspects.

As to why these issues continue to plague us, there are myriad reasons. But chief among them are two: (1) the lack of a requirement for all journalists and government to adhere to a standardization on communications ethics (although Shield Laws are a step in the right direction), and (2) the acceptance of a perceived legitimacy of “establishment” news organizations and the resulting predominant structure of the very profession of journalism, as it is taught in schools today.

If the decline of print media cannot be avoided, it should be embraced, as should the demise of news organizations operating within the guild-style façade promoting the idea that there is such a thing as a “professional journalist,” when in fact there is no such thing as a licensed journalist. If any credence or “legitimacy” is to be ascribed to a given journalist, it should be based on that journalist’s ability to deliver a story in a timely fashion that is important to the public, newsworthy, contributing to a more comprehensive understanding and truthful representation of the subject in the story.

All ethics issues considered, might it not be best to facilitate a more efficient enabler of news delivery that affords greater accessibility to a greater variety of news content, the value of which is directly determined by the news media constituency — the public — and less under the control of government and large, inefficient organizations?

Perhaps this type of enabler is only possible with today’s teeming availability of communications technology. If it is not possible to transplant a reporter in New York to interview child soldiers in Sierra Leone, it may be possible for a more local person with a simple recording device to capture what they can, and transfer that raw content online to any skilled editor anywhere in the world, who can then fashion that content into a finished piece, which can then be accessed by anyone in the world with access to a computer. The democratization of news media reporting is facilitated further not just by the proliferation of digital recording technology, but of the skills to edit that content into various formats as well.

If the internet is to be used to spread greater understanding, it is primarily a tool for journalists and news consumers. Its primary purpose is communication, and the greatest communication is that which improves the world around us. The far greater preference and effectiveness of images in communication over text notwithstanding, the very method of communicating those messages might be called into question and explored.

If the pen is mightier than the sword, and a picture is worth a thousand words, the impact of hundreds of thousands of images forming a moving image with sound cannot be neglected. For the first time, it is increasingly simple for anyone in the world to record moving pictures and sound, and to transmit that recording to virtually anywhere else in the world, instantly. The responsibility of those who transmit the recordings to ensure that they are beneficial to those receiving them is in no way diminished.

Efforts are already underway by a myriad of endeavors to solve these issues. They exist because they seek to solve a problem, which in this case happens to share common ground with many of the gripes we regularly encounter when recognizing public opinion of the news media. In a Google search using the keywords “public opinion news media,” the consensus is clear, that it is largely failing its mission. The environment being created around the unsustainable position of establishment news organizations make them increasingly impractical. Understandably, the spirit of self-preservation dictates that they will take steps to ensure survival, even if it means undergoing a complete transformation in methodology and presence, as Newsweek has demonstrated with its own evolution into The Daily Beast. However, little has changed in its basic organizational structure and logistical approach to news delivery. This will continue to pose a challenge for its success.

CNN’s iReport is another example of the evident awareness of news organizations that they will need to adapt to the changing media environment in order to survive. This however does that mean that journalism has to adapt to survive, or that journalism is dying out.

Sourcewatch.com lists multiple examples of new reporter bases developing globally. Some of them address credibility by a rating, others emphasize a variety of presentation styles, and a mix of them focus on a particular region. But all of them share one thing in common, and that is the desire to deliver important news with less emphasis on an unattainable “objectivity,” a greater variety of sources and news pieces, and all with a greater degree of efficiency than existing news organizations. It is only a matter of time until one, several, or all of them hit a responsive chord with the public so powerful that it will re-invigorate the news media industry.

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