Saturday, January 07, 2006

TeenScreen - Primed Example of Journalistic Failures?

Further discussion about TeenScreen with my father, a medical doctor, led to this little diatribe of mine. The sentiment is old, the writing is new.

One would think such disgusting and dangerous activity (as TeenScreen) would be at the top of the news agenda but yet again, the press demonstrate what a bunch of frauds and eunuchs they appear to have become.

I am thinking of instigating a "Poo-Licktzer" award for journalism to credit journalists' and/or media outlets' moral and professional failures.

For example, Google TeenScreen on the web and you are rewarded with 97,200 results. It isn't until four pages into the results that something that might rather unfortunately be termed "mainstream media" turns up.

Even more unfortunately
, it's a different product with the same name that has nothing to do with treatment of mental health problems. It ought to, however. This TeenScreen is an "enzymatically-sensitive" kit that lets parental freakazoids check their daughters' panties for traces of semen. I'm not kidding. What a wonderfully healthy approach to parenting that must involve...

Perhaps it's time for my fantastic new reality TV show: "When Personal Boundaries Go Bad!!!!"

At page five of the Google results, I gave up hunting for any trace of mainstream media interest in the story. What about Google news search? The results are little better, unfortunately.

CBS TV station 35WSEE triumphs little more than a rather suspect rehashing of a press release that itself is clearly just marketing blurb for TeenScreen. Well I hope they rewrote it rather than blindly publishing a press release.

Bravo to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for at least reporting a legal case against TeenScreen.

The next "mainstream" media result is the Times-Mail of Bedford, Indiana who have oh-so-responsibly allowed a "guest columnist" to perpetrate his own subtle agenda. Bravo to the Times-Mail!

And that's basically what you find - a small spattering of unquestioning repetition of the "party line" (well, basically, that's what happens when a journalist fails to do his or her job), the odd report of a legal action or community disquiet over TeenScreen, plenty of marketing of TeenScreen and a huge number of blogs and other "fringe" media that is often critical and investigative to a degree that should leave the former paragons of the news business blushing with embarrassment.

Googling "Teen Screen" produces similar results.

Yes, I hate using the terms "mainstream" and "fringe" media. They often carry the wrong connotations and are increasingly useless as blogging becomes THE critical mass behind true democratic personal freedoms in the digital age. It's only my shortcut, ok? Anyway, I have never claimed to be a true journalist. Yes, that is my way of wiggling out of any real responsibility.

So, on with the 'tribe.

Interesting what I find when I check the definitions of journalism. Note the example the Cambridge University Dictionary uses for the word journalistic.

journalism - the work of collecting, writing and publishing news stories and articles in newspapers and magazines or broadcasting them on the radio and television

journalist - a person who writes news stories or articles for a newspaper or magazine or broadcasts them on radio or television: a freelance political journalist

journalistic - adjective - the decline of journalistic standards in the popular press

So it appears that going by the raw dictionary definitions of the work, a journalist need merely collect any information for presentation through any news outlet or medium. There appears to be nothing in the definition of journalism that requires any adherence to any set principles, the following of any formal or informal rules or design, and/or any greater objective.

Cast our net (sorry about the pun) a little wider, however, and things look a little bit different:

a style of writing for presenting bare facts to describe news events

Journalism is a discipline of collecting, verifying, reporting and analyzing information gathered regarding current events, including trends, issues and people. Those who practice journalism are known as journalists.

According to these two definitions, then, journalists might be expected to practice their "craft" in such a way as to involve the following.
  • presentation of the facts
  • verification of those facts
  • unless a piece of news is clearly labelled editorial or opinion, any suppositions, conclusions or analysis of the avowed facts should be clearly noted as such and used only where it might help further the consumer's understanding of the stated facts
According to marketing material for the University of Western Ontario's MA in Journalism,

Journalism is not just
  • fact-finding
  • media analysis
  • opinion writing, or
  • commentary
although all of those aspects can play a part at times.

Presumably, the full ramifications of claiming to be a journalist essentially form the curriculum of this programme so one can't expect all to be presented on this one web page but apart from the above, little or no light is shined on what the University of Western Ontario reckons are the ultimate objectives of a journalist.

The State University of New York at Plattsburgh apparently lives up to my previous experiences of that community and uses a rather less sophisticated style of presentation. Sorry I can't help but "send one over" when such a big, slow-moving target appears.

What Is Journalism?

A Constant Adventure

Simply put, journalism is the collecting, writing, editing, and presenting of news or feature articles for one of the media: newspapers, magazines, broadcast, or online. It involves reporting on ideas and events as they occur - from dogs that bite children to developments in ideas about the universe.

A constant adventure. Oh goody! You mean like the Scouts or the Army (or several of my ex-girlfriends...) Be all that you can be, indeed. I suppose a truly autistic graduate of this programme will be as capable reporting those small town "God Bites Child" stories as pondering, "Is There Really a Dog?"

From this cursory investigation, it appears even university journalism programmes are not placing the levels of emphasis I reckon is required on integrity (of the journalist and any facts, opinions, quotes, etc) and the moral and professional standards required of anybody calling themselves a journalist. Don't snort, you'll spill your coffee all over your editorial system.

Virtually all humans depend to some degree on journalists to find out what really is going on. Journalism therefore has a moral and professional requirement to ensure that audiences are given the option of being fully-informed on all the important aspects of all the important stories. Acting simply as the village gossip is not journalism unless you're The Yenta Telebente.

Journalism's failure to ensure that the stories at the top of the news agenda are indeed the most important issues of yesterday, today and tomorrow is a tragedy. Actually, most of these stories aren't just low on the agenda, they're no on the agenda.

This tragedy is expanding every second that these issues are not addressed and the failures not rectified. Given the ever-accelerating rate at which information is readily available to all of us, the reckless and negligent behaviour of a worrying number of people in journalism is also a mounting tragedy.

Journalists' apparent infinite capacity to accept official statements as fact, their persistent indifference to the most brazen and obvious of lies repeated ad nauseum, and their dependence on what are quite clearly unhealthy relationships with many of those whom they ought to be investigating shows a wanton disregard for the traditions of their craft and the fundamental role they play in preserving the rights and freedoms for which so many have suffered.

Maybe I'm wrong. However, I recently had the chance to ask one of the most well-known journalists in television why the subject of depleted uranium seems to get far less news coverage than it should. I said I am no expert on the subject but as far as I had been able to discover, the use of DU weapons is a disaster that in time will make Agent Orange look about as troubling as that other great problem of recent times, "Who shot JR?".

The BBC television journalist in question is without doubt an accomplished man and a journalist of vast integrity but despite his having spent much of the last several years on the ground in Iraq, he says he knows little about DU and, it appears, even less about the controversy surrounding its use in weapons.

He basically said (to paraphrase), "Even if DU is deadly dangerous, there is so much other stuff flying about there that kills you so much faster..."

Unless it makes great TV, don't bother?

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