The beat goes on…

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If I were to evaluate my high school journalism teacher, Miss S., through the  current thinking about what makes a teacher good, she’d get a pretty low grade.

Sometimes, she’d teach what looked like a lesson, sort of. I do remember her standing at the front of the room occasionally, sharing information about journalistic principles or practices for a few minutes. There were no learning targets on the board, no rubrics, no scoring guides, no real assignments other than the ones we were given to produce our student newspaper.

The teacher who chaired the English department told me that the journalism class wasn’t a good use of my time. When I shared that with Miss S., she laughed, and I understood that they didn’t like each other and that my presence in her class gave her a battle win in some kind of teacher war. It was the first time I understood that there were such things.

She was volatile and erratic. Once, in a fit of anger with one of us, she yelled and kicked a wastebasket across the room. I remember that, and the way we all went silent, afraid of what she might do next. We whispered among ourselves about what might be wrong with her. Someone once snooped in her closet and found an empty pint bottle. We wondered if she drank at school.

And yet, we produced an award-winning newspaper. Under her direction, our scope extended beyond the walls of our high school. She drove some of us to the state capitol so we could interview law-makers for a story about the impact of state budgets on our education. We wrote a story about the Green River Killer, who targeted young women in our area. We took national stories and examined what they meant for us locally.

Somewhere along the way, between flying trash cans and trips to the capitol, I learned the fundamentals of journalism that guide me as a consumer of information today:

  • You need to present all sides of a story.
  • You need credible sources of information.
  • There is a hard and clear line between fact and opinion.
  • You need to dig beyond the surface of a story to what lies beneath it.
  • Good journalists ask hard questions and tell hard truths, even when others don’t want them to.

One of my award-winning stories was about the dangers of “look alike” amphetamines, which students across the country were buying and selling. It included photos of such pills taken in our newsroom, as well as quotations from anonymous students who were dealing them in our classrooms. My principal did not appreciate the story. He wanted the names of my sources, the students who told me how they were doing business during class. For a people-pleaser like me, this was kinda scary stuff–but I was never really scared because I knew that Miss S. had my back. I also had the strength of convictions she’d instilled in me about the necessity of a free press and the duty journalists have to tell the truth and protect their sources. I wasn’t privy to the adult conversations that took place and don’t know what kind of heat she took from her boss, but I never did have to reveal mine.

When I went to a large state university and was looking for places that could make campus feel smaller, I sought out the newspaper staff. The first thing I saw when I walked through the newsroom door was a graffitied wall with “Fuck Objective Journalism” scrawled across it in huge letters. I was offended not by the language, but by the sentiment. Objectivity was a bedrock principle for me. I left and didn’t return for a few months.

Eventually I did, and I took the beat covering our crew team. I was not a sports writer, but it was a way in. I worked my way up to writing in-depth feature stories, and despite my colleagues’ irreverence (or perhaps because of it), I never abandoned the principles formed during my time with Miss S. Like so many experiences in young adulthood, though, it was one that showed me what I wasn’t cut out for. I hated calling people I didn’t know on the phone. I hated making people uncomfortable with hard questions. I hated writing under the pressure of a deadline and not having enough time to polish my writing or my thinking. Eventually I ended up working in education, not journalism.

As I’ve watched the demise of print journalism over the past decade, I’ve been thankful many times that I didn’t pursue a career in it. If I had, I may well have been objectively fucked, a victim of mass layoffs at a point where I’d be too old to easily switch careers but not old enough to retire. There are always casualties when industries and economies change, aren’t there?

But what’s happened in journalism isn’t the same as, say, what’s happened to the coal industry. Coal is, as one might say, a “disaster” for the environment. I truly do feel for those who are suffering because the backbone of their economy has snapped–especially those who, like me, are at exactly the wrong stage of life to be able to recover from such a catastrophic injury. But I also know that alternate sources of energy are what we need to survive as a species. I wish we could find ways to support those people without bringing back that industry.

Journalism is different, though. We need journalists–real ones, who investigate corruption and share truth and ask hard questions we all need the answers to–like we’ve always needed them. We need them perhaps now more than we’ve ever needed them. That’s something Miss S. taught me.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I’m grateful for many things, not the least of which is that in spite of the economic challenges facing those who produce print journalism, we still have newspapers that adhere to the principles I learned decades ago. I’m thankful that in spite of all that is currently troubling and uncertain in our President-elect’s relationship with the press,  we still have a free one. I worry about the fact that so many of our youth cannot tell the difference between valid and bogus news. I worry about the proliferation of fake and clearly biased “news,” which may very well have influenced the outcome of our recent presidential election. I worry about lowlife scum who care more about the personal profit they make from creating and disseminating misinformation than the damage they do to all of us through their actions. But I take hope from journalists who are the ones who really tell it it like it is, and those who vow to keep doing so in this strange new world we seem to be living in.

I’m thankful, too, for the public education I received that’s helping me navigate it. A high school acquaintance of my daughter’s recently shared that he distrusted a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist’s article in The Wall Street Journal because she “went the school route.” I wish so much–for himself and for all of us–that in his education he’d encountered a journalism teacher like Miss. S. and wonder how things might be different for him if he had. Like pretty much all of us, Miss S. was flawed, a human mix of strengths and weaknesses. I think of her often these days as I reflect upon what went wrong in our election, one of the first people from whom I learned that one doesn’t have to be perfect to be (and do) good.

(If you’d like to contribute to the continued existence of publications that provide accurate information about matters of crucial importance to us all, please check out the links on the Resources page.)

Photo Credit: Christof Timmermann Flickr via Compfight cc

13 thoughts on “The beat goes on…

  1. Chris K in Wisconsin says:

    My personal belief following this horrific election we have gone through, is that it is more important than ever that the written word survives. We have to stop getting all/ most of our news from TV. As much as I love MSNBC, I have to think that part of the job to host those shows, is to also be an entertainer. The 2 minute interviews we watch, and the 60 minute time frames, just aren’t conducive to in-depth journalism.

    We cannot allow print journalism to die. It is more important than ever to subscribe to a newspaper. We have all heard about newspapers going out of business, and as long as people continue to get their news primarily on TV, or from biased (either all liberal or all conservative) websites or radio stations, we will get, more or less, what we deserve. Every one of us has a job to be fully informed. We need to commit to the written word. We need to read and we need to think about what we read. By only watching or listening to the news, that key component is being lost.

    Your teacher knew and understood that!! We can only hope that there are more teachers like your Miss S still out there fighting that fight. Along with appreciating and understanding the importance of good journalism, we need to hope that schools and PARENTS are encouraging critical thinking, as well. This new administration certainly won’t foster those causes, but we need to fight those prospects and be part of the culture which dedicates resources so that investigative journalism thrives and becomes even stronger. Stay informed! Read a newspaper ~ read a book. And then process and ponder what you have read. Make your own INFORMED decisions with more resources at hand than just a TV or a radio. Miss S would be proud!! Thanks for a great post!!!!

    • Rita says:

      Hi Chris–thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I am (of course!) in full agreement with you. I think it is part of our duty as citizens in a democracy to keep ourselves informed, and I do not trust broadcast news to do that for us. I rarely watch/listen to it. About the only time I do is when I’m visiting my parents, and after a few days of it I can hardly stand it. The coverage after the debates and on election night made me so angry; first, for treating the whole thing like a spectacle/game, and second, for telling us what everything meant as if their interpretations were fact. Election night, in particular sickened me. They looked positively gleeful at the drama of it, rather than sobered by what it was was revealing about the division within our country. Gah! Don’t get me started…

  2. Marian says:

    Thank you for this very thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Rita.

    I read (with great interest) the link regarding the study which showed that youth (middle school through to college-age) cannot discern fake news (or ads) from real news, but I confess it left me wondering — would out-of-school adults have scored any better? I can’t speak for anyone else of my approximate age, but I know that I personally did not receive ANY instruction on critical thinking in high school (whether that was because it was simply not part of the curriculum, or whether it was because I went to an inner-city high school where relatively little seemed to be expected of us, is anyone’s guess at this stage). It wasn’t until university, when I was doing my science degree, that I received instruction in critical thinking as it pertained to analysing scientific studies. But even with that, I’m not entirely sure I would have picked up on everything those students missed in that study. I think that the lack of critical thinking is HUGELY problematic and that it is a problem that exists across a wide variety of issues … but I suspect it’s problematic not just for youth, but occurs right across the generational board. And unfortunately, however fascinating/disturbing the findings are (I will be forwarding it on to my older two children, as well as to my younger son’s grade 6 teacher) I do think that studies like this sometimes have the unintended effect of reinforcing generational stereotypes. Older generations can read this study and stay smug in their disparaging assessments of millennials while utterly failing to recognise that they too may have considerable failings in this same matter. (How many of them, I wonder, will stop to consider that the study seems to have had no control group. Had the study included a control population of Boomers being tested alongside youth the result might not have been that YOUTH media literacy is bleak, but that EVERYONE’S media literacy is bleak.) (Sorry if that was a mini-rant; it was not aimed at you — I’m fairly certain, based on what you’ve said previously, that you dislike intergenerational stereotyping/griping as much as I do.)

    This post is, in my eyes, a continuum from your last. Your exchange with Kate about mid-west bubbles gave me a lot of food for thought, and I think there are many valid connections between that discussion and this one. My MIL grew up on a farm in Manitoba (as midwest bubble as you can get), and although she left the farm and moved to the “big city”, and then went on to another “big city” (this second one providing as diverse a mosaic as Canada has to offer) — and although she has travelled widely (travelling and getting to know other cultures being the point of contention in that bubble conversation) — she continues to cling to her prejudices and right-wing beliefs. I think this illustrates that part of the “fight” to get people to understand and empathise with each other is very uphill-battle-ish. I seem to recall reading something, somewhere along the way, that said that tribalism is an evolutionary adaptation, that seeking “same” and shunning “other” would have helped to keep early humans alive. Perhaps this is why confirmation bias is so damn hard to root out and discard — we all seem to inherently “want” to have our beliefs confirmed and to feel we are on the “right” side of things. (And people on both sides of the fence can be guilty of this.) Pre-internet, it was perhaps a bit harder to do this — you’d have to actively subscribe to those journals/magazines/societies which confirmed your biases while at the same time thumbing your nose at the “real” news which came in the mainstream newspaper. I suspect there was probably just as much obstinacy/digging in of one’s heels when presented by contrary facts and views as there is today. The difference now is that the misinformation is so rampant; it’s all right there at our fingertips, and no one has to make any effort at all in order to find opinions and cherry-picked “facts” which prop up their beliefs. I think that, combined with the speculation that we also don’t seem to be reading with the same attention and depth as we used to ( http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/ ) — means that a fair number of us aren’t even managing to get past the headline in order to critically assess whether the “news” is valid or not.

    • Rita says:

      Hi Marian,
      I definitely don’t think that youth are the only ones who aren’t able to tell a valid source from a bogus one. Or that they are the only ones who read uncritically. The focus of the study was youth; I didn’t see any attempt to say that adults were better at this. I know that what I see online and in social media is certainly not comprehensive, but I’ve had more than one exchange where it’s clear that the other person isn’t much interested in what is or isn’t true. I’m dismayed at the idea one expressed–that because anyone can find facts to bolster their position, facts aren’t really important any more. WHAT??? I’ve heard adults say that there isn’t really a difference between facts and opinions anymore. WHATTHEWHAT??? And the one that gets me the most: Well, that’s what I believe and you can’t tell me that what I believe is wrong. Um, yeah, I can. It seems some of us are mixing up beliefs with opinions.

      I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but these things drive me crazy. I did learn much of this in high school. As a 10th grader, I got to take a class called “Semantics and Logic” and it was fascinating to me. It was all about logical fallacies and how we use language in loaded ways. (It was taught by the teacher who told me journalism was a waste of my time. I really admire both of them, though they pretty clearly didn’t care for each other.) I took that class the same fall that Reagan was elected, and he was a master at appealing to people’s emotions through language and symbolism. I can see that the seeds of what is blooming here now were sewn during his presidency more than 30 years ago.

      As for how we read changing–yes, I see some of that in myself. It’s troubling; some ideas/arguments cannot be expressed in short paragraphs and 800 words. So, if we can’t sustain attention and focus for longer pieces, we cannot really access those more complex ideas/arguments. It’s one of the reasons our new standards call for students to be able to read high-level, complex texts. The same standards most Republicans want to get rid of.

      Oh, too much to be swimming in so late at night. We’ll have to continue this conversation later… 🙂

      • Marian says:

        Yes, yes, yes, to everything you wrote.

        To clarify: I do know that the intention of the study was to assess the abilities of youth, and youth alone, and that a control group wasn’t needed for an assessment like that. The reason it so got my back up (because it very obviously did!) was because I — like you — believe it’s vital for EVERYONE to be getting their facts straight. Because the stakes are too high now for us to have the luxury of believing whatever we choose whenever facts prove to be inconvenient or uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s a product of my idealism, or of my dysfunctional childhood, but I still cling to the impossible idea of “fairness”. It therefore struck me as unfair that the designers of the study chose to focus solely on youth, putting the ball in THEIR court while ignoring altogether how the older generations play. How fair is it that the older generations got to live in such-and-such a way (not caring one jot about what they were doing to the world, not just environmentally, but in so many other ways as well; and that they CONTINUE to not care one jot about any of it, despite being presented with facts) when it is our youth who will be the ones who will have to pay the price? (And yup … I claimed to dislike intergenerational griping, but I think I should ‘fess up and out myself as a card-carrying Millennial sympathiser.)

        At one point I said you should have come to MY high school, Rita. I take that back — I should’ve gone to yours …

      • Kate says:

        I, too, read that tribalism is an evolutionary adaptation and I can see how that would make sense.

        In talking about bias and how this tied in, I felt like how you talked about your mom’s “prejudices and right-wing beliefs” to carried it’s own prejudice. (Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive and misreading tone), which perfectly illustrates how we all have our bubbles. For me, one of the hardest parts as a newly converted liberal (I was as right as they come not 10 years ago) is that for all our talk of being open-minded we can be as closed minded as the right when someone disagrees with us (I include myself in that statement). I feel like more and more each side is concerned with being “RIGHT” and less concerned about understanding where the other side comes from. Tolerance and acceptance is hard stuff and I don’t know that we’re really built for it. But I guess that’s the point isn’t it?
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        • Marian says:

          Actually, no, Kate, I don’t think you’re being overly sensitive; I didn’t choose my words very well there, did I? “Right wing beliefs” aren’t inherently wrong, nor are right wing beliefs necessarily tied together with prejudice or intolerance. And yes, I agree: one CAN be prejudiced against someone simply because they disagree on an issue which has no objective right or wrong answer. In hindsight, I should have known better than to talk about my MIL, because her views are not merely right wing and “different from mine”, they’re oftentimes breathtakingly tactless and mean-spirited, which to me speaks to intolerance. And while I love her, I don’t have to be tolerant of her intolerance (nor do I think being intolerant of someone’s intolerance makes one prejudiced). I believe we ALL have prejudices, probably via that evolutionary tribalism thing, but that the important thing is what we do with those prejudices: do we allow them to have voice and to colour our actions, or do we silently recognise them but actively work towards the opposite, to give people opportunities to prove our (unstated) pre-suppositions wrong? Like you, I’ve been across the board in my political and social views. I grew up with a German “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” father, who dropped various bits of white-supremacist ideology into our (very limited) conversations. While I never found anything to agree upon with the white-supremacist parts, I would be lying if I said the bootstrap attitude didn’t/doesn’t colour my thoughts and views. TBH I can become very impatient and frustrated when I think people are “simply not trying hard enough”. (This is something I have to work very hard at keeping out of my writing. And I know I don’t always succeed at that 🙁 .)

          • Kate says:

            Thank you for taking the time to clarify, Marian. I agree with you completely that we do not need to be tolerant of other’s intolerance though I sometimes struggle with this. An example: I have people in my family (religious right) who honestly believe that homosexuality is a sin. I disagree with them, but they honestly feel as if by sharing their view they are saving someone’s soul. It’s hard – that tie between loving them and knowing they mean well and disagreeing with them.

            And yes, the bootstrap thing is a hard one. I’m guilty of that one too, sometimes.
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          • Rita says:

            A book I’m reading that both of you might find valuable: Waking Up White by Debbie Irving. As I am learning more and more about what it has meant to me to be white, I see more and more how things I accepted as “natural” or “normal”–like bootstraps and tolerance of everything–are things that I learned and are different from the things that others learned. I’m learning that I can love and accept someone, but still reject their beliefs. One of the most important ideas I’ve encountered is that we need to stop excusing actions that have negative impact because they come from a place of good intentions. I truly do understand that evangelicals believe they are saving souls–but their actions have devastating impacts on those who are gay. One only needs to see stats on the suicide rates of gay teens to know how lack of acceptance and love for them as the people they are is terribly harmful. I am having to work hard to overcome the value of tolerance I was taught, along with the value of getting along and not causing conflict, so that I can speak up and say: You know what? You’re just not right on that one. I’m sure the reason I spend so much time asking about facts and sources in my discussions with people is that, right now, it is safer for me. (That, of course, comes from cultural values, too. I come from a culture that values information and data.) It’s safer for me to tell someone that their information is wrong than it is to say that I think their belief is wrong. We’re all works in progress. I really appreciate both of you engaging in this conversation here.

  3. Kate says:

    I can see why a logic teacher and a journalism teacher would butt heads. I loved my journalism teacher, but one of the things that made me the most angry with him was that he truly believed there could be unbiased news. And I would rant about how bias was EVERYWHERE. Bias in what we consider news and choose to publish, bias in how we present the facts, bias in our word choices (that weighted language you mentioned earlier). All of our lenses have been calibrated by our experiences and that shapes how we see things (and journalists are no different – even when presenting facts).

    Thankfully, my parents spent a lot of time with me looking at how someone can present facts in a truthful but skewed way to push a platform. I was fortunate, but I don’t think many people have been, and so don’t know how to read with a critical eye.

    Now we have Boomer’s who once protested against the man, Gen X’ers who never have had much love for the establishment, and Millinials who are basically Boomers 2.0. So with a whole lot of distrust for institutions (print journalism, government, organized religion), we’ve created this vacuum where people live with confirmation bias.

    Add all the technological “developments” and we’ve shortened our attention span, lowered our tolerance for hard labor and personal sacrifice, and become so inundated with information that it’s impossible NOT to get overwhelmed.

    I guess I don’t really know what I’m trying to say. I think going back to reading the paper everyday would be a good thing. I think slowing down (and reading forces us to slow down and think) in general is a good thing. I just don’t know how we get the people who most need it (like the woman who just told me global warming is a scare tactic made up by Al Gore and he probably thinks the first ice age was caused by Cave women’s hairspray) to do it. Because lately, it seems I’m preaching to the choir. (And I love hearing that I’m not alone, but that’s not doing what needs to be done.)

    Sorry. Lots of rambling thoughts typed out on my phone during swim practice!
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    • Rita says:

      Thanks, Erin. Have already started thinking about what next year’s word will be. I used to scoff at that, but I don’t think I will after this year.

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