Journalism’s devolving role

Just think, how often do you hear about battles (real or imagined) between Democrats and Republicans on news channels and in print? And how frequently do the real-world effects and struggles of the mortgage crisis get covered?

A few months ago, I approached the editors at one of the outlets for which I freelance, and offered a story about California state and federal authorities bringing legal action against a number of home loan modification firms, because they were scamming desperate homeowners struggling to keep their homes. The editors’ response was that they were monitoring the story, but did not wish to cover it just yet.

I went to a press conference arranged by authorities, and discovered that the story behind the story was how these mortgage loan scams carried out their deception, and who were the people most vulnerable to the scams and those most often targeted (minorities with weak English skills and lack of resources). I also learned of legitimate resources which are available to people, but which many don’t know about because information isn’t being well disseminated.

Here I was in a position to disseminate that information, but the outlet I had approached merely wanted to monitor and not cover. They saw the story as a law enforcement action; one with limited short-term results and possible political motives. So, they shut the door, not giving me the opportunity to tell the story behind the story.

I decided to take matters into my own hands, and wrote a post on this very blog, quickly telling a skeletal version of the story I wanted to report. I also filed a posting for a blog syndication service that publishes on eHow.com.

And, wouldn’t you know it: my blog posting about the mortgage modification scams is right now the most popular post on my blog and is daily accepting traffic from people who typed in search engine queries trying to find out more about the issue. I’m also getting traffic from people who are reading my report on eHow, and coming to my blog for even more information.

Instead of feeling vindicated, I feel frustrated. It’s clear this is an important topic. Being the reporter out in the field, I knew it should have received far more coverage. And as reporters will tell you, the subjects involved in a story may not always have the purest of motivations (in fact, they rarely do), and in this case some appeared to have political motivations, but that doesn’t make a story any less valid if the reporter does their job and digs, filters, asks questions, and figures out where the truth most likely lies and what’s most important for the public to know.

And while the story about these scams, how to avoid them, and how to get help with faltering mortgages gets reported from time to time, it is not told in a persistent and continuous way. It simply gets lost, even though we have 24 hours of news every day on various platforms (TV, print and online outlets).

Just think, how often do you hear about battles between Democrats and Republicans on news channels and in print? And how frequently do the real-world effects and struggles of the mortgage crisis get covered? How many times have you seen or heard or read stories informing people specifically how to cope, what to do, where to get help, etc.?

Journalism, as an industry, is less and less shouldering its civic responsibilities. I wish I had an easy answer as to why this is, and whom to vilify. But the problems are complex and multi-faceted. I won’t attempt to get into all of them. There are conferences held, forums, discussions, bemoaning and finger-pointing throughout the industry. But in the end, nothing appears to change, unless it’s for the worse.

This has left many talented journalists hopeless and defeated. I unfortunately know of experienced people who are leaving the profession altogether. That is alarming, because they take with them years of skill building that is hard to replace. Journalism, like practicing medicine well, is something you learn by doing.

At the same time, I have spoken to several college journalism classes, and I have little optimism to offer them. In fact, I was recently invited to speak to another journalism class and declined the offer. I simply couldn’t face another class of hopeful young journalism students, only to tell them that the skills they were learning are little valued and their likelihood of landing a good job after school is very slim.

We are, as a country and perhaps a world, in a period of economic difficulty. With that, comes pessimism. So I know that some of these attitudes are only natural, and that things will improve. But journalism has been in a state of depression for as long as I’ve been in the field professionally – about 10 years now. And while I’ve always assumed that the smart and the talented will always have a platform and a voice, that assumption is no longer true – as I see talented journalists quitting the profession, or laid off and unable to find another place for their skills.

I’m alarmed that we seemingly no longer expect journalism to serve a civic function. And because of that, it doesn’t. And the less it does so, the less we see it as a vital part of our society.

We could do without medical care, but our lives would be far worse off. We’d be regressing. I’m saddened that the same logic doesn’t seem to apply to journalism. And our lives are worse off every day for it.

There is some hope: I was able to get the story out through the Internet and interested people have searched for it and found it – repeatedly, every day. And a number of fantastic laid-off journalists have gone on to found or work for online non-profit news organizations that focus on investigative journalism. But the online forum can’t replace our vast, formidable media outlets. The online world must work in conjunction with them, not be a substitute. For, it is a poor substitute.

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