What made you want to work for a newspaper?” a suitably curious would-be reporter asked during a presentation to an IPFW journalism class last month.
“Reading too many Superman comics as a kid,” I answered.
But if what we enjoy as children influences what we do as adults, future career choices could be changed by something that happened just a few days later:
Clark Kent quit his job at the Daily Planet, the great metropolitan newspaper that hired him in the first issue of Superman Comics way back in 1939.
Kent, of course, is the Man of Steel's mild-mannered alter ego who sought a job at the Planet (it was the Daily Star at the time) so he would be in a position to know the latest news and fly to the rescue if it became a job for Superman. But today, when anyone with a smart phone has instant access to virtually limitless information from anywhere in the world, that notion seems hopelessly antique. So, perhaps inevitably, Kent will apparently write for the Internet – even if he's not quite sure how it will pay the bills.
“He's more likely to start the next Huffington Post or the next Drudge Report than he is to go find someone else to get assignments or draw a paycheck from,” writer Scott Lobdell explained to USA Today.
But what makes this significant is not the evolution of technology – he was a TV reporter briefly during the 1970s -- but by changes in journalism itself.
“I believed that journalism was an ideal . . . but facts have been replaced by opinions. Information has been replaced by entertainment. Reporters have become stenographers,” he tells boss Morgan Edge in the latest issue before walking out. “I'm not the only one who believes . . . that we need to stand up for the truth. For justice. And yeah – I'm not ashamed to say – the American way.”
Less than two years ago, Superman made news by threatening to renounce his American citizenship because “truth, justice and the American way – it's not enough anymore.” But why quibble about inconsistencies in a make-believe world when his latest bit of art really does imitate life?
When I speak to groups these days, I urge them to get their news from a variety of sources precisely because so much coverage is biased in ways even discerning readers and viewers may not notice. I am often accused of being biased even though this and other columns are clearly labeled “opinion,” but even factual reporting reflects bias when ideology determines which stories are reported and which are ignored.
Coverage of what the government did or did not do to prevent the deadly attack on the American diplomatic compound in Libya is only the latest example.
But it was Kent's description of reporters as stenographers that really caught my attention, because too much of what passes for journalism these days really is just the mindless copying and regurgitation of “facts” gleaned from meetings and handed out by self-promoting sources at press conferences and in news releases.
The thing I stress most of all to young journalists is the need to anticipate the news, not simply react to it after the fact. Develop sources, be curious, give readers and viewers news that is not only fair, accurate, unique and interesting but whenever possible do it while they still have time to influence the outcome.
Just as even the best teachers cannot force unwilling students to learn, journalists cannot impose awareness on the indifferent. Less than a week before an election there are, sadly, people more interested in Lady Gaga than in the name of their City Council representative or the positions, background and character of the candidates for president.
Being businesses, “news” organizations cannot afford to ignore people more interested in being entertained than informed. But the First Amendment expects more than that from people who call themselves journalists: the determination to keep the public informed so that people can fulfill their obligations as citizens and voters, even when the people soliciting those votes object.
That takes more than desire; it requires enough people and money to do it right.
As a medium, the Internet is unsurpassed in its ability to deliver news. That's why newspapers and many other traditional media sources are struggling financial. But the Internet has not, yet, developed into a reliable platform with which to pay people to report the news. If it doesn't, what then?
Supermen who don't need food or shelter and own their own indestructible blue-and-red suits needn't care either way. The rest of us mere mortals should.