Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Public Media's Double Standard

By Cherney

There's something that always bothered me about liberals and conservatives (but mostly liberals) who claim that the media is no longer doing its job in questioning authority and uncovering the truth. The media's job in a free society is to perpetuate the "marketplace of ideas," to find out whether our elected officials are telling the truth, etc. These critics, for example, point to Bush's fiasco with his claim of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and say the media failed to properly investigate these claims. At their job, these media critics say, journalists have failed.

Work today elucidated why I dislike these media critics.

I'm working on a story about city parks, specifically that young adults congregate in public parks at night and smoke, do drugs, fight, and make it uncomfortable for others. Apparently its gotten to a point where neighbors refuse to go there at night. I believe this is an issue worth reporting. Wilkes-Barre has had problems with its parks in the past ($26,000 in repairs for city parks recently). Residents are scared or uncomfortable to use their parks. Whether or not you think these neighbors are warranted in their complaints, they are still complaining, and people -- and city officials -- have the right to know. And myself, as a journalist, have an obligation to report this problem for public consumption.

In a story like this I think of myself as doing a public service. Maybe an article in the paper will change things. Maybe the city will further increase police patrols (they already have increased it), hire security guards, or do something.

But as I interviewed neighbors this afternoon at one city park, it was very difficult for me to get people to give me their names for publication. It's common in journalism not to use anonymous sources, and very few papers do it -- and if they do, its usually, you know, a big deal. Basically if I can't get any neighbors saying on record that it is a problem, there's no story. If there's no story, there's no public awareness of the problem, and if there's no awareness, there's no change. I understand that some people were afraid of vandalism or retribution if they complained on record about these problem young adults. But the fact of the matter is I can't do my job if people are not willing to talk to me.

At times it even got personally insulting. You know, I stand there talking to some resident for 5 or 10 minutes. They refuse to give me their name for publication. Fine. So I ask them for their first name, just to say thank you, just to relate to them on a personal level like any other human being with who they interact. And most of them won't even give me their first name. They think I'm going to burn them and put them in the paper. It's mildly insulting because in any other social interaction you tell people your name first thing. Its insulting secondly because they think I'm lying to them when I say I'm not going to publish their names.

Which brings me back to my first point. Citizens, public officials, politicians, just about everyone on many occassions refuse to cooperate with the media. Without cooperation the media cannot do its job. And then these same people -- citizens, public officials, politicians -- turn around and criticize the media for not doing its job. With this popular conception of journalists as cheats, liars, and solicitors, no wonder jouranlists have a hard time doing their job.

Apparently there's a police chief in a town around here who refuses to release crime reports to the press. How are journalists suppose to do their job in this kind of work atmosphere? I know jouranlism is a thankless profession, and I can operate without thanks. But its another thing to weather this hippocritical doublespeak.

Maybe its time some of these media critics reevaluate the circumstances in which journalists operate. And instead of constant criticism (some of course, is healthy), why don't they use their energy to change the way the public interacts with journalists in a way that is beneficial for both reporters and citizens. That's what I try to do every day on the job.

And if we're talking about creating an atmosphere in which its impossible for the media to do its job, here's an article that should make your spine tingle:

Court Orders 4 Reporters to Reveal Sources in Lee Case.

Just some insights from a full-time reporter in Wilkes-Barre, P.A.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can relate. I wrote this story a week ago for the Glendale News-Press, where I am interning, about tobacco smuggling and how it's a big problem in Glendale.

I went to interview sources (mainly owners of liquor/tobacco stores- yes, people do use tobacco in California) to see if they've ever been approached to buy contraband ciggies.

I would introduce myself by name, as a reporter for the GNP and they would proceed to tell me their 5-15 minute expose on how they had been approached and tobacco smuggling is a problem. Then, at the end of the interview, after they had seen I was writing like a maniac the entire time, they refused to give me their name!!! It was so frustrating!

I respected their right to privacy but by the 3rd time this happened, I just flat out told the guy, "Look, I can't use anything you say unless you tell me your name. I'm not putting this as anonymous." I further explained that without store owners going on record saying they resist buying from these smugglers, this story would make it seem like there is a tobacco smuggling problem that is probably sponsored by liquor store owners. Nope, they didn't want to help.

They felt their business and its reputation would be in jeopardy if it were to appear in the paper. But I don't see how if they talk about never buying contraband.

Ah, the trials and tribulations of being a journalist. I hear ya Cherney.