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Friday, January 11, 2013

Journalists: Frontline historians

Dan Brown, an editor at The London Free Press, recently wrote a piece entitled: Journalists are not wannabe historians.

"Every time I hear someone describe journalism as “the first draft of history,” I shudder inwardly.

It’s not a fair definition of what reporters, photographers, columnists and editors do on a daily basis.

Even worse: It’s kind of insulting to the members of my chosen profession. It suggests all we journalists are is second-rate historians."

Dan Brown is right: Journalists are not automatically historians, not even second-rate ones. Furthermore, a good argument can be made that journalism is not automatically a profession. J-Source, the Canadian Journalism Project, delved into this question last January with an article, "Can journalism be a profession?"

Media law specialist Klaus Pohle, an associate professor at Carleton University, is quoted in the J-Source article: "In our system . . . anybody can be a journalist . . . ." Therefore, he argued, journalism is not a profession.

Personally, I have never been enamored with the job titles of journalist and photojournalist. I have always preferred reporter and photographer. I came to the newspaper business straight from three years of art school. My friend, hired at the small Ontario daily at the same time as I, had recently graduated from university with a BA in English. In later years, my friend became the news editor putting out the front page of a large, important Canadian daily.

But, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Dan Brown's is right. Maybe he is a professional journalist. I assume as a professional journalist, he must report serious infractions of his profession's code of conduct. I'm not sure to whom Mr. Brown reports, nor do I know where to find the universally accepted code of conduct, but I am sure Mr. Brown, as a professional journalist, knows these answers.

While working in the newspaper game, I was often shocked by the stuff that masqueraded as news. For instance, I was totally appalled when the Ottawa Sun hired two young models to pose topless for a news story — the young women took turns playing the topless sunbather role with their bare backs kept modestly towards the camera. I wrote about this in a post, Who's a photojournalist?, that has been hit by journalism students and others from around the globe.

Here are the Ottawa Sun cutlines that accompanied the posed photo, left, run when the paper retrieved the archived image to illustrate another story a year after running the first piece: "Last summer, Lisa Regimbal, left, bear (sic) it all while chatting with Connie Morden." (Yes, bares was spelt incorrectly. And I discovered the names of the young ladies were switched from first publication to second.)

After Mr. Brown gets this breach of journalism ethics dealt with by the profession's ruling body, I hope he gets in touch with me. I'll give him a few more iffy items to look into. He tells us, "I take this [journalism] seriously. As a journalism educator, it’s up to people like me to dispel these myths."

I liked it better when journalists, working closely with talented editors and skilled photographers, were proud to put together a rough draft of history on a daily basis. I don't imagine respected journalist Alan Barth meant to insult Mr. Brown when he used the phrase in a book review appearing in the New Republic in 1943. (Yes, the phrase was coined and popularized by journalists.)

Perhaps, Mr. Brown needs to grow a thicker skin. Maybe, just maybe, he is too easily offended. I have hunch that most in the news business would agree with Jack Shafer writing in Slate:

"What makes 'first rough draft of history' so tuneful, at least to the ears of journalists? Well, it flatters them. Journalists hope that one day a historian will uncover their dusty work and celebrate their genius."

Will those historians also sift through blogger posts?

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Addendum: If Dan Brown takes offence at this post, I'm sorry. Like Mr. Brown, I care deeply about journalism and the direction in which it is headed under the guidance of huge companies like Quebecor, owner of Sun Media and The London Free Press.

Since getting into blogging, I've learned that people working in the media have the thinnest of skins when it comes to criticism. This is not to say that Mr. Brown will take offence, but he might.

If I write a harsh piece on financial advisers, I get well thought out, well reasoned and very polite e-mails. But from reporters I get e-mails banged out using the largest of fonts in the boldest typeface. Reporters often earn their income holding others up to intense examination. Being taken to task in a small, inconsequential blog does not compare to being criticized in a daily newspaper.

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