June 26, 2020
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The World's Best Profession

Journalism must go back to the trenches, rediscover the basics

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The World's Best Profession
The World's Best Profession

A Colombian university was asked what aptitude and vocational tests are administered to persons wishing to study journalism. The response was categorical: "Journalists are not artists." These views are, however, fuelled precisely by the conviction that print journalism is a literary genre.

Fifty years ago, journalism schools were not fashionable. This craft was learned in newsrooms, print shops, run-down corner cafes, and at Friday night parties. Newspapers were produced in a factory-like setting, where the right training and information were provided, and views were generated in a collaborative atmosphere in which integrity was preserved. Journalists formed a tight-knit group. We shared a common life and were so fanatical about the profession that we talked of nothing else.

The work itself fostered a group friendship that left little time for one’s private life. Although there were no editorial boards in a formal sense, at five o’clock in the afternoon, the entire staff gathered spontaneously to take a break from the tension of the day and to have coffee in any place where there was editorial activity. It was a kind of loose gathering at which there was heated discussion of the topics of each section and where the finishing touches were added to the next morning’s edition. Persons who did not learn in these 24-hour roving academies of fervent debate or those who became bored with all the talking that took place there were those who wanted or believed themselves to be journalists, but in reality were not.

At that time, journalism fell into three broad categories: news, feature stories and editorials. The section requiring the greatest finesse and carrying the greatest prestige was the editorial section. The reporter’s job was the one that was the most undervalued, since it implied that the person doing it was a novice who had been relegated to menial tasks. Both time and the profession have demonstrated that the nervous system of journalism operates in a counterclockwise fashion; to wit: at age 19, I was the worst student in law school and began my career as a member of the editorial staff. Gradually, by dint of hard work, I made my way up, working in different sections, until I became a plain old reporter.

The practice of this profession required a broad cultural background, which was provided by the work environment itself. Reading was a supplementary job requirement. Persons who are self-taught are usually avid and quick learners. This is particularly true of persons of my era, inasmuch as we wanted to continue to pave the way for the advancement of the best profession in the world, as we ourselves called it. Alberto Lleras Camargo, a perennial journalist who was, on two occasions, president of Colombia, was not even a high school graduate.

The establishment of schools of journalism later on was the result of a reaction in academic circles to the fact that the profession lacked scholastic backing. At the moment, this does not apply to the print media only, but to all areas of the media that have been or will be invented. However, in a bid to expand, even the humble name assigned to the profession since its beginnings in the 15th century has been abandoned. It is no longer called journalism, but rather communication sciences or mass communications. Generally speaking, the results have not been encouraging. Students who graduate from academic institutions with unrealistically high expectations, with their lives ahead of them, seem to be out of touch with reality and the main problems of life in the real world, and attach greater importance to self-promotion than to the profession and innate ability. This is particularly true with respect to two key attributes: creativity and experience.

The majority of students enter the profession with obvious deficiencies: they have serious problems with grammar and spelling and do not have an instinctive grasp of the material they read. Some take pride in the fact that they can read a secret document upside down on the desk of a minister, that they can tape casual conversations without informing the speaker, or that they can publicise a conversation that they agreed beforehand to treat as confidential. What is most disturbing is that these ethical breaches are based on a risque view of the profession, one that has been consciously adopted and is proudly rooted in the sacrosanct importance attached to being the first to know something, at any price and above all else. The notion that the best news is not always the news that is obtained first, but very often is the news that is best presented, means nothing to them. Some of these persons, aware of their deficiencies, feel that they have been cheated by their universities and do not mince words when blaming their teachers for failing to instil in them the virtues that are now demanded of them, particularly curiosity regarding life itself.

Clearly, this is a criticism that can be levelled at education in general, which has been corrupted by the plethora of schools that persist in the perverted practice of providing information rather than training. However, in the specific case of journalism, this seems to be compounded by the inability of the profession to evolve at the same pace as the tools of the trade, and by the fact that journalists are getting mired in the labyrinth created by technology as it hurtles forward. In other words, there is fierce competition among companies to acquire modern tools while they have been slow to train their staff and adopt the mechanisms that fostered team spirit in the past. Newsrooms have become aseptic laboratories where people toil in isolation, places where it seems easier to communicate via cyberspace than by touching the hearts of readers. Dehumanisation is spreading at an alarming pace. It is not easy to understand how technology, in all its glory, and communications, which takes place at lightning speed, things that we all hankered after in our time, have managed to hasten and exacerbate the agony associated with closing time.

Beginners complain that editors give them three hours to complete a task that really cannot be done in fewer than six, that they ask them for material for two columns and then at the last minute give them only half a column, and that in the chaos of closing time no one has the time or the inclination to provide them with an explanation, let alone a word of consolation. "They don’t even scold us," said a novice reporter who was anxious to receive direct feedback from his bosses. Silence reigns: the editor who was a compassionate sage in times gone by barely has the energy or the time to keep up with the punishing pace imposed by technology.

In my view, it is the haste and restriction in terms of space that have reduced the stature of reporting, which we always considered to be the most prestigious genre, but also the one that requires more time, more research, more reflection, and superb writing skills. Reporting is, in reality, a meticulous and accurate reconstruction of facts. In other words, it is the news in its entirety, as events actually occurred, presented in a way to make the reader feel as though he actually witnessed them.

Before the invention of teletypewriters and telexes, someone in the field of radio communications with a fanatical devotion to the profession quickly captured the world news amidst the cacophony of the air waves, and a scholarly editor prepared it, complete with details and background information, in a manner akin to the reconstruction of the entire skeleton of a dinosaur from a single vertebra.Only the interpretation of the news was off-limits, since this was considered to be the sacred preserve of the editor-in-chief, whose editorials were presumed to have been written by him, although this was not the case. In addition, the penmanship was almost always famous for its flourish. Renowned editors-in-chief had personal linotypists whose job was to decipher this handwriting.

One significant improvement made in the past 50 years is that the news and reports are now accompanied by comments and opinions, and background information is used to enrich editorials. However, this does not seem to have achieved the best results, since this profession has never seemed more dangerous than it does now. The excessive use of quotation marks in statements, either false or true, provides an opening for innocent or deliberate mistakes, malicious distortions, and venomous misrepresentations, which give the news the force of a deadly weapon.

Quotations from sources that are entirely credible, from persons who are generally well-informed, from senior officials who request anonymity, or from observers who know everything but are never seen, make it possible for all kinds of offences to go unpunished. The culprit erects a fortress around himself by citing his right to withhold his source, without asking himself whether he is not allowing himself to be easily exploited by that source who, in transmitting the information to him, packaged it in the manner that best suited him. I think that a bad journalist believes that he depends on his source for his livelihood, especially if it is official, and for this reason considers it to be sacrosanct, agrees with it, protects it, and ends up entering into a perilous relationship of complicity with it, which even leads him to look askance at other sources.

Perhaps this may sound too anecdotal, but I think that there is another major culprit in this process: the recorder. Before its invention, the profession managed quite well with three tools of the trade, which, in truth and in fact, were really one: a notebook, uncompromising integrity, and a pair of ears that we, as reporters, still used to hear what was being said to us. The professional and ethical use of a recorder did not yet exist. People should teach their young colleagues that a cassette is not a substitute for one’s memory, but rather, a sophisticated version of the humble notebook that provided very reliable service during the early years of the profession.

The recorder hears but does not listen, and, like an electronic parrot, repeats but does not think. It can be depended upon but does not have a heart, and, in the final analysis, its literal rendition is not as reliable as that of the person who pays attention to the live words of his speaker, uses his intelligence to assess them, and judges them based on his ethical standards. While it does, in terms of the radio, offer the enormous advantage of providing an immediate and literal rendition of words, many interviewers do not listen to the responses provided because they are thinking about the next question. Because of the recorder, excessive and misguided importance is attached to interviews. Radio and television, by their very nature, have transformed them into the supreme genre.

However, the print media also seems to share the mistaken view that the voice of the truth is not so much that of the journalist who witnessed an event but of the interviewee who provided a statement. In the case of many newspaper editors, transcription serves as the acid test. They confuse the sound of words, stumble on semantics, trip up on spelling, and become ensnarled in syntax. Perhaps the solution is to return to the modest notebook, so that journalists will use their intellect to edit as they listen and let the recorder occupy its rightful place as an invaluable witness.In any case, the assumption that many ethical and a host of other lapses that debase and bring shame to modern journalism do not always stem from a lack of morality, but also from a lack of professional skill, is a comforting one.

Perhaps the shortcoming of mass communications academic programmes is that they teach many things that are useful for the profession, but very little about the profession itself. Clearly, humanities programmes should be retained, although they should be made less ambitious and rigid, in order to provide students with the cultural background that they do not receive in high school. However, any kind of education should focus on three key areas: assigning priority to aptitude and vocation; establishing categorically that research is not a speciality of the profession, but rather that all journalists must, by definition, be research-oriented; and building awareness that ethical standards cannot be a product of happenstance; like the drone of a bee, they must be the constant companion of every journalist. The ultimate objective ought to be a return to the basic level of education by offering small group workshops, which provide a critical appreciation of historical experiences, within the original context of public service.

In other words, insofar as learning is concerned, the spirit of the 5 pm get-togethers should be revived. I belong to a group of independent journalists, based in Cartagena de Indias, that is trying to achieve this throughout Latin America through a system of experimental, itinerant workshops bearing a rather lofty-sounding name: Foundation for a New Approach to Journalism in Ibero-America (Fundacion para un Nuevo Periodismo Iberomericano). This is a pilot programme geared toward journalists who are just beginning their careers. They work in one specific area—reporting, editing, radio and television interviews, and a host of others—under the guidance of a veteran of the profession.

In response to a public announcement of the foundation, candidates are proposed by the media organisation with which they are working, and that organisation covers travel, accommodation and registration expenses. Persons must be under the age of 30, have a minimum of three years of experience, and demonstrate their aptitude and level of skill in their area of speciality by providing samples of what they consider to be their best and worst work. The duration of each workshop depends on the availability of the guest instructor, who rarely can spend longer than one week. During workshops, the instructor does not attempt to provide participants with theoretical dogma and academic biases; instead he seeks, during the round table, to strengthen their skills using practical exercises, with a view to sharing with them his experience gained in practising the profession. The goal is not to teach people how to be journalists, but rather to hone the skills of those who already are, through practical exercises. No final exams or evaluations, diplomas or certificates of any kind are given. The sifting process will take place through the practical application of their skills.

It is not easy to assess the benefits reaped thus far from a pedagogical standpoint. However, we are heartened by the growing enthusiasm of persons attending the workshops, a phenomenon that is already providing fertile ground for nonconformism and creative rebellion within the media circles of these persons, an approach that is supported, in many instances, by their boards of directors. The mere fact that 20 journalists from different countries met, over a five-day period, to discuss the profession is already a sign of their progress and of the progress of journalism.

In the final analysis, we are not proposing a new way of teaching journalism; rather, we are seeking to revive the old way of learning it.The media would do well to support this rescue mission, either in their newsrooms or through scenarios created for that express purpose, in a manner akin to the air simulators who recreate every incident that can occur in flight so that students can learn how to avoid disaster before they actually encounter it in real life.

Journalism is an unappeasable passion that can be assimilated and humanised only through stark confrontation with reality. No one who does not have this in his blood can comprehend its magnetic hold, which is fuelled by the unpredictability of life. No one who has not had this experience can begin to grasp the extraordinary excitement stirred by the news, the sheer elation created by the first fruits of an endeavour, and the moral devastation wreaked by failure. No one who was not born for this and is not prepared to live for this and this only can cling to a profession that is so incomprehensible and consuming, where work ends after each news run, with seeming finality, only to start afresh with even greater intensity the very next moment, not granting a moment of peace.


(Copyright: Gabriel Garcia Marquez Courtesy: Inter-American Press Association)

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