The Hazards Of Amateur Journalism


              canadian press handout photo   

Think anybody with a notebook or a camera is a journalist?  Think again.   Years of training and fine tuning go into creating  the kind of experienced reporter who knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff while retaining an objective point of view, crafting it into an interesting story and not getting killed in the process.   A piece by Ian Austen in this morning’s NY Times about Canadian waitress turned “citizen journalist” Amanda Lindhout, who was held by Somali kidnappers for 15 months speaks directly to the safety issue.   Being kidnapped and possibly killed are a couple of minor issues any number of aspiring “citizen journalists” may not be thinking about as they pack up their little cameras and head for parts of the world that could be hazardous to one’s health.

I’ve always found the term “citizen journalist” to be insulting at best.   “Amateur journalists” or journalist wannabees” would be more more accurate descriptions.  Journalists who spend years honing their skills can’t be replaced by wide-eyed newbies, lacking credentials but armed with handy-cams and notebooks or gallons of hairspray and buckets of makeup who think journalism is something anybody can do.  What nonsense.   That kind of naivete leads to the type of situation Austen writes about in the Times.   It is also destroying the news “filter” that once determined what is and is not, legitimate news.   Losing that filter is the bigger danger.   It threatens the survival of our Republic, which will not stand without the open flow of honest and accurate information about our political process and national, state and local institutions.  What we used to call the news.

The filter was made up of professional journalists who spent years learning the traditions and standards that defined the difference between meat-and-potatoes journalism and what passes for news today.   So much of it is nothing but sanguine, superficial junk.  Particularly on the broadcast side where young women no longer dress in business attire.  Here in Los Angeles, some of them look like they are headed for either a backyard barbecue or a high-end cocktail party at Hollywood and Highland.  We’re supposed to take them seriously as they stand there grinning broadly,  clad in cocktail dresses with faux diamond earrings hanging down to their shoulders?   Friends, credibility just flies out the window.

There are lots of  “See spot!  See spot run!  Spot runs fast!! “reporters” out there.  Lots of entertainment, product promotion and mind-numbing meaningless minor criminal activity posing as news.   Anything that’s inexpensive but offers good eye-candy.  At the same time, there appear to be fewer and fewer real journalists trying to determine who Spot is, what made him run, where he is running to, why he’s running, when he might get there and what the larger context of the story might be.  Never mind getting into the “how” factor.

Why not just give it up and animate the whole thing?  We can go to Tweety Bird reporting live from the field and Daffy Duck at the weather map back in the studio.  The really scary thing is, there are news executives who will read this and think it might be a good idea.

Much of the push away from news and into entertainment can be blamed on a largely unregulated system that puts the decision about what journalists should be doing and how it should be done in the hands of Wall Street speculators who demand increased profitability each and every quarter and sales departments all over America that are supposed to meet Wall Street’s insane demands.  Marshall McLuhan and P.T. Barnum were both right.

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