An Open Letter to the Media

open letter to the mediaTo Our Nation’s Media Professionals:

It must be frustrating to find the industry in which you’ve made a living shrinking. Staffs reduced, pay cut, jobs doubled and tripled up as an industry shifts to match a population that suckles at the teat of convenience.

It also must frustrate you to see someone like me abandon AP style.

But as custodians of our nation’s “official” information sources, you have a responsibility. If you want to see your profession not just survive, but thrive, I have a few ideas. You can take them or leave them — after all, I’m just some chick in Colorado. But there are a whole lot of chicks in Colorado. And dudes. And teachers, parents, plumbers, financial advisers, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Hindus, gun owners, Democrats, reproductive rights advocates, Republicans, those of Middle Eastern decent, francophiles, Brits, and ferret owners (and assorted combinations of select designators) who see your position — conveyors of information — as one of strength.

Personally, I’d like you to start seeing yourselves that way once again.

While Twitter might offer up a 6-second video of one of yesterday’s horrific explosions, it’s your profession that is charged with relaying that information. In the race for clicks, pageviews, and traffic, I’ve seen the most trusted news sources with banner three-letter monikers devolve into sensationalized sites catering to this now now now generation’s demand for anything. “Anything — just give us anything,” we cry. But it would be lovely if you told us “no.”

No – we will not capitalize on over-graphic images that would get a Hollywood blockbuster an R-rating.

No – we will not use cultural or nationality indicators when reporting that there is a suspect in custody. Why? Because we know the most important words in those statements are “in” and “custody” as opposed to where one was born or the depth of one’s suntan.

No – we will not bring you unverified information for the sake of being first. We remember that lives are at stake — including those we interview alongside those whom have had their lives changed forever in the face of tragedy.

No – we will not allow you to act that way in the comments sections of our articles. It’s not a free for all on account that you’ve gained access to an internet connection and a keyboard. And yes, we understand that you might not like the news as it’s reported, but we report for you.

No – we won’t offer that bandwidth. When sensationalistic pseudo-pundits like Alex Jones offer shock jock tactics so they can ride the wake of tragedy to advance their own personal agenda, we will not participate. We know that bandwidth is what they want, and we refuse to cave.

You see, the messages that deserve bandwidth are those like Patton Oswalt’s. I’d rather tune in to Upworthy any day than read the please-click-here schlock that drives the website traffic you need to keep your advertisers happy.

If you’re reporting to be first, perhaps your reasons need a reassessment. The greatest achievements in the world as we know it today were never about being first. And in fact, no one’s really ever first outside of a finish line at the Olympics.So perhaps a shift is in order — from the need to be first to the pursuit of being the best.

Being the best is about a long-term commitment to doing better work. That’s what I want from you — better work. I want to see my friends who love journalism and have racked up degrees, clips, and escalations from contributing writer to editor and beyond revel in their career choices. And perhaps it’s masochistic, but I adore them for laying into me with their pointed red pens.

They make me a better writer. A better storyteller. And since those two acts are what bring me the greatest joy, their editorial skills also make me a better person.

Better. We can all do better. My friends can once again revel in their career choices when public perception of the media shifts back to a place of trust. That can only happen if you start telling us “no.”

We can do better with how we treat the stories of others, as people like us (though I’m not a journalist) are the ones trusted with sharing those stories with the world. As someone who loves the power of stories as much as I do — I ask:

Will you commit do doing better?

Little angers me more than people who confuse conjecture with proven by due process, clicks with credibility, and a platform with plausibility. Those who assign guilt and blame to the whole of a population (nationality, religion, gender, political affiliation) based on the actions by a fraction. And I feel it’s a goddamn shame that you can buy a vowel on the Wheel of Fortune, but when fortune bites us in the ass, we can’t buy a dose of humanity or compassion.

You are the voice of compassion, hard truths, and the lens which shows us sights we never wanted to see. If we don’t hear what needs hearing and see what we couldn’t without your daring eyes, we’re doomed to unravel. But even worse, we’re doomed to forget.

So I ask: will you help us learn, encourage us to listen, and remind us that there is a story behind each face, bloodstain, horrific incident, gun owner, Muslim family, and child’s smile?

It would be better. I believe that people are truly good, and that you — our media — have the power to remind us of that when the bit of evil that lives in the hearts of mankind boils over and brings about the unthinkable.

Thanks for your time, and for being fellow storytellers in pursuit of better stories.

~Erika

25 comments
Barbara Joy
Barbara Joy

Amen and pass my ipad! Slowly people are voting to receive a better quality news (and information) via the new sources available online.....will it take turning off their lights to provide this wake up call?

MikeKorner
MikeKorner

1) Right on! Extra points for tossing AP Style out the window :)

2) The state of journalism today is appalling. In general, the media is short on facts, long on bias, and short on courage. Integrity used to be synonymous with Journalism. I bet there aren't five journalists today with the investigative skills needed to break a story like Watergate ... let alone the guts.

3) But, alas, we the people are not innocent. We are impatient, and until the media gives us the news, we rightfully do what we can to understand what we can about the situation affecting our families, friends, or fellow humans. I have to admit that I like getting news from ground zero without the filter of mainstream media. Until it becomes too chaotic. Then I head to one of the three-letter channels expecting the facts. I think there’s a bona fide need for the mainstream media provided they do their job. Otherwise, they will be replaced by citizen journalists.

4) "No – we will not allow you to act that way in the comments sections of our articles"
Amen! There are so many media entities (national and local) with unattended websites and Facebook pages. They allow comments and don't moderate. Predictably, it becomes a free-for-all. I think they have the moral responsibility to monitor their comments and maintain civility.

It’s fine for people to speculate about what happened, and it’s fine to have vigorous debate. But when people start calling other people idiots (and all of the various derivatives), the site owner (or moderator) needs to step in and restore order. I think they need to call out kindness, call out evil, and call bullshit where appropriate.

Our world is a mess right now. I think every one of us who are part of what Patton Oswalt called "The Good", need to step up and hold the media accountable.

megcarpen
megcarpen

I was on Facebook long enough last night to read one post about Boston, and it was hideous. It shared deaths, some of the injuries, and it made me simultaneously start crying and ill. I had to log off, and I was a bit scared by what I would see this morning. I've honestly avoided all articles about the bombing, as the information is still too new, and they don't have it all. I remember growing up when one of the local news stations emphasized that they were always first, first with the story, first on the scene, first with interviews. Well, now I would like to see accuracy replace speed. It simply increases fear to start shooting off random numbers and ideas, and please, please people, quit showing all of the truly horrible images. Don't hide reality, but remember that we don't need to see the bodies either. Knowing that there are bodies is harsh enough. Seeing the gore is usually unnecessary.

sibernyte
sibernyte

Thanks again for being so on the mark... you are awesome.

clarealeece
clarealeece

I agree with Alice - so much of this is so much about ratings and viewers and so little about the news.  The ads and the $$$$ involved are ruining true journalism.

edmahoney1805
edmahoney1805

Nicely written.  I guess I'm surprised we are still so deep in the learning phase of new media.  Even social media specifically has been prevalent for several years now.  Are journalists a bit slow?  It's their friggin profession.  At a certain level, nothing has really changed.  Sources are sources.

AliceAshmore
AliceAshmore

Thank you Erika. I began my career as a newspaper journalist in 1982, and this old-school journalist loves your post. I blame the 24-hour news cycle, and corporate greed for much of what is wrong with reporting today. 

PivotGuild
PivotGuild

Well-stated Erika.  It would be great to shine a light on those journalists who resist the trend for sensationalism and ARE challenged by quality.  But we, as consumers of news, have a major role in this drama.  Other than your post today, what are we demanding?  I'm tempted to turn Woody Allen's famous line - "Too much reality is not what the people want" - on its head.  Particularly in the US we have grown into a society of workaholics - grinding along without conscious meaning.  For relief from that numbness we seek hyper reality.  That is to say that "news," like video games, is meeting the demand for distraction rather than the desire for edification.  Those of us who seek meaning are living in a different time-space continuum!  Taking the time to read, explore, discuss in community and act is a core value - one we'd like to see reflected in quality journalism.   

FloFarrell
FloFarrell

Thank you Erika! As someone who lives less than fifteen minutes from the scene of the crime (and yes it is a truly horrific crime) it is hard enough to escape the reality of it even for a minute - schools are closed, armed guards and SWAT vehicles are in the streets and everyone is on edge enough without the constant stream of stupid retoric from newscasters who have nothing useful to share and pundits who just want to have their moment in the spotlight.  I want news but  only if it is truly useful.  Let me know where the streets are still closed, what we should do if we have concerns or information, where we can give blood to those in need, what the weather will be and bring us the stories of those who rushed in to help when no one knew if it was safe to do so....  All of the rest of it can wait.  As for Patton Oswalt - his was one of the few pieces that I read and shared yesterday. His writing gave me a small dose of peace last night and I thank him for that. 

Cris Gladly
Cris Gladly

This is so on point. And Patton Oswalt's statement yesterday was my favorite as well. 

The masses are so mentally lazy. So many people don't want to "know". They don't want to read or think. They just want to be a part of the latest "Oh my god, did you HEAR? That's so shocking and terrible " momentum of the moment. Accuracy to most seems irrelevant. There is so much knee-jerk reacting, and so little discernment and thoughtful response. 

AZsMum
AZsMum

The race for the scoop is as old as journalism. In j-school, they taught us that having to print a correction was the worst of humiliations - don't just be first, be the first to get it right.

qctravelwriter
qctravelwriter

I am so sick of it. All of it. I am also tired of bloggers who try and act just like journalists, but aren't even at the scene. Just retweeting the wrong information. I have read many articles about the Boston marathon and all of them have different facts. Is someone in custody or NOT?! Are there multiple explosives or not? What happened to fact-checking? I wrote about this about a week ago.

I worked as a reporter before and I love journalism. This is atrocious. The Newtown reporting was also disgusting. I understand journalists are under a lot of pressure, but be the one who gets it right.

doylealbee
doylealbee

Erika, well put.

 I can't think of a single truly great moment in journalism (not what sadly passes for journalism all too often today) that was the result of printing/broadcasting/posting 30 seconds before the next guy. The stories we remember for decades take time. Woodward and Bernstein investigated the "third-rate burglary" for months (years?) before publishing what they found. By carefully finding the facts and the truth, it revealed corruption at the highest levels. The team that eventually exposed Jack Abramoff also worked for months, checked for second sources and committed — dare I say it? — journalism. 

More recently, I've been saddened at how many of my friends didn't take the time to read Time's recent cover story, "A Bitter Pill." Healthcare is in crisis in this country, and it affects us all. The Time article took seven months to research and write and is a classic piece of "follow the money" journalism. But it clocks in at more than 20,000 words. Is the "microwave news" phenomenon as much our own fault as that of those in charge? Have we, as a society, lost our desire for thoughtful, well-researched, hard-hitting pieces that may change our point of view? Maybe it's just easier to tune in to the ever-growing partisan spew (on both sides) that reassures us we should be suspicious of those from other parts of the world and our country was perfect in the 1950s. It's so much easier working hard to find the truth.

And so very sad.

freckles71
freckles71

yes! I have worked in broadcast media for 15 years, both radio and television, and I cringe when I see coverage like I am seeing now after the bombings at the Boston Marathon. We, the media, have a responsibility to our viewers and listeners to cover the news but not to sensationalize the news - in my opinion.  I do believe that we should show the footage of what happened BUT don't believe that it should be looped and relooped non-stop for hours and hours on end ...especially since the moment the bomb went off was also the last moments on this earth for some people. We need to remember the stories we are telling are the stories of a persons life. We need to have honest, informative news reporting but being first is pointless if being first means you just reported something that was wrong. 

OurMarketingGuy
OurMarketingGuy

The bottom line is that we the BETTER people in this world, and regardless what anybody says this is the best country to live in. Journalism is now "fast food" without fact checking, and Social Media is making us "less connected".  Turn off your TV's, go outside and hug somebody.

uemike
uemike

Well said Erika, but I don't have much hope in anything changing.  As long as prefacing a piece of information with the phrase 'we have uncomfirmed reports' qualifies as journalistic integrity, the whole system is will continue this freefall into degradation.

FWIW, this whole thing you've expounded upon is the exact reason I don't watch the news.  It's too easy to retract, rewrite and apologize without any real accountability or repercussions.  It happens with small stories of local interest too - look for it and you almost can't miss it.

AmyVernon
AmyVernon

I agree with most of what you said, having spent 20 years in newspapers. But I disagree with the idea of not showing graphic images. I would argue the media needs to be less squeamish about showing what violence truly looks like. U.S. news orgs have always shied away from showing the true cost of war, the true depth of violence. And I think too many Americans don't realize that it does not look as neat and clean as it does on a movie screen, as messy as a blockbuster might appear to show things.

I would argue we need to be shown the graphic images to shake us out of complacency. The images that make us suck in our breath. The photos of people who jumped from the WTC on Sept. 11, 2001, were more shocking than the buildings on fire or collapsed - those and those alone showed the true horror and desperation felt by the people there. Those are the photos that have stayed with me in the years since, the ones that bring me back to that day and remind me of how horrible it really was.

I was glad - not in a happy way - to see that some of the more graphic images were being shown, because we need to know how bad it really is. We need to see that there was blood, that people died. We need to bear witness to the carnage so that the people who were there are not the only ones who know how horrible it really was.