That checkmark is no indication of intelligence (and other thoughts on journalists and social media)
I love being free from the shackles of public relations. Ever since I decided to abandon my pursuit of a career in public relations, I feel much freer online. I no longer follow hundreds of PR professionals with boring, cookie-cutter bios that promote their #digitalmarketing and #storytelling skills. I've been much less invested in censoring myself and more open to saying whatever I want, especially when it comes to politics (as PR is generally a liberal field). And perhaps most importantly, I no longer feel the need to kiss reporters' asses.
In a recent blog post, I discussed what I called the "death of engaging conversation and informed debate." I recalled a Twitter-feud I carried on with a reporter in OKC. Following the feud and my resulting blog post, I emailed him a link to my blog and invited him to carry on the conversation offline (rather than tweeting him, since he blocked me on Twitter). I had to cancel the first time and I have yet to hear back from him since. It's unlikely I'll ever see him again. Anyway, this got me thinking about journalism, political activism, social media and fandom.
As many people were likely unaffected by this, I will recall to you the fall of Al Jazeera America before I move forward. At the beginning of 2016, AJA announced that it would be shuttering operations by the end of April. It came as no surprise, as AJA never quite found its footing in the American news market and, as a result, its ratings were atrocious. The day following the announcement, journalists and bloggers were quick to theorize as to why AJA never took off. Aside from marketing and management issues, one particular reason stood out: it lacked bias. That's right, folks. Al Jazeera America's pretentious British accents and "straight, sober journalism" weren't enough to woo American viewers. Meanwhile, ratings for MSNBC and Fox News, each with a respective and obvious political bias, continue to dominate cable news ratings. This is what Americans have come to expect (and embrace) from its news sources: a slant that favors the viewers' pre-existing biases and notions. There are many, many people that complain about the "dishonest media," politicians and private citizens alike. However, we do little to combat this problem.
What makes it worse, in my opinion, is social media. These journalists-gone-celebrities now have a more personal, direct platform to voice their opinions and thoughts. While this enables news to spread faster, as many on-site reporters will tweet updates regularly, especially in the midst of a high-profile story or crisis, this also elevates said reporters to celebrity-like status. The reporter I got into an argument with is no exception. He has over 13,000 followers and is praised by many in OKC. Every one of his tweets that mocks politicians or calls for "common sense gun laws" (the same gun laws that are criticized by the ACLU) gets dozens of retweets. And yet, buried in the midst of praise and affirmations, I found a lone tweet from a brave voice, referring to his Twitter verification, that read: "Too bad your checkmark didn't include an ability to Google."
I read that tweet to mean one thing: you are so invested in sharing your bias that you're no longer interested in sharing facts. And this small-time reporter in a nationally-irrelevant city is no exception. Reporters with larger followings that report for national newspapers or on national news networks (you know, news mediums that actually matter) can be even worse. Some of the most popular television personalities include Bill O'Reily, Megyn Kelly, Rachel Maddow, and even Cenk Uygur to some extent. Every one of these goofballs has a strong, obvious conservative or liberal bias. He or she not only endorses and promotes their respective ideology, but also treats these biases as established facts and legitimate means of conducting journalism. Although, who can blame them? Ratings drive the machine and people love being told that they're right. And perhaps more shameful is the Society of Professional Journalism. The SPJ is to journalists as the Public Relations Society of America is to PR professionals: it's a group of self-policing troglodytes who lack the backbone to police anything at all. That's why the laugh-fest that is the Code of Ethics that exist respectively for both PRSA and SPJ do not prevent any misconduct. Heck, the respective organizations don't even call fellow professionals out for lack of ethics. If anything, they get praised at ridiculous awards ceremonies like the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity or International Center for Journalists Awards. SPJ even removed the sentence, "...news reports should be free of opinion or bias, and represent all sides of an issue," from its code.
It's so tempting, though. When you're a reporter, finally getting that "verified account" checkmark from Twitter, feeling like a big shot, building up a following. You have a platform, an audience and PLENTY of opinions. I mean, you must be important if you have that checkmark, right? WRONG. A rumor currently flying around some PR circles and blogs is Twitter's liberal policy for verifying journalists. Many tech writers, social media "experts" and journalists have been discussing how social media is changing the landscape of how Americans consume news. Twitter was, at one point, interested in buying a news outlet and a media company in an effort to get ahead of the future of news. Twitter has a significant stake in keeping journalists on its platform, as an estimated 74% of its users utilize Twitter to consume news. As such, it's no surprise that Twitter could be making efforts to verifying every reporter that so desired to be verified to entice them to stay. Either way, that checkmark is nothing more than a status symbol.
Another problem plaguing the news media and journalists is the hype surrounding horrible events and crises. While it's tempting to display horrific scenes on the news to engage the audience, it's disrespectful to both the victims and the victims' loved ones. It also systematically numbs the public to real-life violence and tragedy and relegates atrocities to mere entertainment. Take the tragic police shootings in Dallas last week. Fox News literally aired a live video of a police officer being shot to death. Another example is the very recent attack in Nice, France. CNN looped the video of the truck ramming through the crowd of people. The resulting carnage could be seen on a number of news networks as well as a number of journalists' Twitter feeds. This kind of insensitivity and out-of-touch thought is what disengages society from the prospect of staying informed.
Speaking of incredible bias, below is a clip of Bill Maher's rant on the news. While there is much to argue with Bill over, his analysis of news bias isn't one of those things.
Yet another issue in the news media is the divisive slandering. Conservative, liberal, white, black, whatever or whoever you are, the news media is certainly good at keeping us all divided. You hear about unarmed black men being gunned down by police yet you won't hear about the white, unarmed teenager gunned down by police officers in California last week. You hear about gun violence on a regular basis, yet you don't hear that the gun murder and aggravated assault and accidental shooting rates are at their lowest rates since 1981 and 2004, respectively. We're not told these statistically-proven facts because they don't fit a narrative that keeps the public divided and ignorant. As long as the public is divided and living in a state of fear or rebellion, the sheep will continue to tune in order to know what they should be thinking.
Why doesn't the news media show more of this?
The American public is entirely dependent on the journalist and the news. It should not be a spectacle. People rely on the news to stay informed on social issues, current events and the misdeeds of the powerful (be they private or public figures). This doesn't happen when a reporter is less inclined to snitch on a powerful figure who happens to belong to the same political party. This is an industry that can't be reformed by governmental intervention. Only the audience member, through perseverance and encouragement of future journalists, can bring about change.
This wasn't just a blog post insulting journalists. The fact is, we don't thank journalists enough. They sacrifice tremendous amounts of sleep and energy to keep us informed. Our society, our democracy, could not function safely without them. That's why I want to encourage journalists everywhere. I'm not talking about the Rachel Maddows of the world, I'm not interested in preaching to the arrogant, verified reporter on Twitter; I'm talking to the recent journalism graduate with a new job at a small-town paper, to the recent media graduate who just got a job at a local news station. You're the future of journalism. Make it bright.