Week 4: Handling sensitive issues

Two comments broke through to grab my attention from this week’s readings and viewing. Both moments occurred in the Newseum’s “The Future of the News: Investigative Journalism” video on YouTube.

The first comment comes in the introduction to the program, when an unidentified person, I am guessing a journalist, testifying before a Senate committee on Newspapers and Journalism, says that with the demise of the local newspaper it is a great time for local politicians to get away with all sorts of mischief.

The second item comes from Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame and current assistant managing editor with The Washington Post, one of the two guests on the program. The other is Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Policy. Frank Sesno hosts.

Woodward, in reviewing his deliberations with Katherine Graham, Washington Post publisher during Watergate, summarizes what it was that Nixon was doing that needed to be exposed.

Woodward says that the Nixon White House was involved in criminal conspiracy, compartmentalizing information, scaring people, and paying people for their silence.

That hit home.

Connecting those pieces of apparent flotsam in the noisy Gulf Stream of the ocean of news allowed me climb abroad a makeshift raft and survey the local seascape. A little poetic here, I get it, but working from these generalizations all I see is that, with those items in mind, something is amiss.

If investigative journalism standard, as Woodward says, is to undercover criminal conspiracy, to decompartmentalize information, to acknowledge and stop threatening behavior, and to get people to talk, then without a reliable, responsible and free press working on all levels of society, from small towns to large cities, then we are in trouble.

People are people, and they will, without a watchdog press, take advantage of circumstances to gain influence in unsavory and unethical ways, which at the same time, demean the democratic process and democracy itself.

Multiply this activity times all the small towns, mid-size towns, small cities and mid-size cities, and there are a lot of places that are just treading water in a sea that is about to tumble into into a perfect storm.


Return for a moment to the McCormick Foundation’s “Protocol: For Free & Responsible Student News Media” that I mentioned in my last post.

In Part I, Section III, “Value of Free & Responsible Student News Media,” the text states: “By knowing the extraordinary value of journalism, the importance of cultivating free and responsible student news media becomes paramount. Good journalism energizes school culture. It integrates every dimension of school into its function and engages the entire school community in democratic participation. Every academic discipline, extracurricular activity school issue, event, news consumer need and interest falls within the scope of journalism. The school mission of civic engagement and every principle of American democracy is protected and served by journalism.”

While “Protocol” addresses the scholastic press, it might as well apply to American society as a whole. Just replace “school” references with “society” references and the impact becomes apparent. Without a free and responsible journalism presence throughout American society, culture de-energizes and dis-integrates.

In addition, teaching students the value of journalism early and throughout their academic careers, through a real journalism experience, might just be the answer to news’s financial woes. In this way, students begin, almost inherently, to understand and appreciate the role a free and responsible press plays in a democracy, and that just might translate into paying customers.

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