5 Myths of Journalism

5 Myths of Journalism

Journalist Alison Hill shares five myths of journalism and breaks down how they started and why they're inaccurate.

Some professions are more vilified and stereotyped than others. For example, we’ve all heard people say you can’t trust a lawyer; car salespeople are liars; and politicians are all corrupt. And journalism fares no better, consistently scoring low in studies/surveys concerning trustworthiness.

(7 Outlets to Consider for Your Journalism)

However, distrust in the media is nothing new, and the public have been questioning the motives and biases of journalists since the late 1700s. In some ways this is healthy. As a profession we should welcome scrutiny. After all, journalists are responsible for distributing vital information that changes lives.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that an active press is essential to act as a check on the government, and if he had to choose "a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Although journalism deserves some of the criticism leveled against it, we must point out the fallacies. So, here are five journalism myths we’re busting today.

Journalism is not dying; it’s evolving. We’re witnessing the shift from the legacy media dominance to the endless possibilities offered by the digital age. A journalist is responsible for gathering and organizing material and distributing the finished (and verified) pieces through various formats and mediums, which used to be limited to television, radio, and print.

Traditional media gatekeepers have been strict on who qualifies to do the reporting and what can be published. Now, the playing field is wide open, and the rules are rapidly changing. What remains consistent is the purpose of journalism, which the American Press Institute claims is “to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”

These lofty goals and processes continue unabated—it’s how and where news is being distributed that is changing. We live in an era where anything is possible if you have the know-how and perseverance. This is a great opportunity for independent journalists to gain a strong foothold, as there’s so many funding opportunities available and new platforms for sharing news and current affairs.

Notice the word “all” here. William Randolph Hurst did not coin the term “if it bleeds, it leads” in a vacuum. He simply discovered the best way to sell more newspapers.

You’d be forgiven for making the above assumption just from reading the headlines and watching the national evening news on any given day. The lead stories are invariably chaotic—a natural disaster, a terrible accident, or a mass shooting. And you can guarantee that important information, such as what bills were discussed in Congress, will be swept aside.

However, there are innumerable resources available, where you can find information relevant to your community, city, and state, as well as pertinent national news that achieves the objectives stated above. All you need do is search for it, either through any number of local online publications, or regional newspapers and magazines. There are plenty of conscientious journalists out there covering important issues that are often omitted from the national mainstream news.

Noticing my name tag displaying the title “Writer/Journalist,” one of the attendees at a recent business event jokingly proclaimed, “We’d better watch what we say, she’s a journalist!” If only we wielded so much power to make businessmen cower!

In TV shows and movies, journalists are depicted as chain smoking, cunning, whisky swilling, ambitious bad-asses, willing to do just about anything for a story. They hardly ever sleep and are never home. Reality is, of course, different.

Journalists must be careful of everything they report in whatever medium as the consequences of libel and defamation can be severe. We cannot randomly quote people we chat to or overhear at parties. We must research, verify, and dig first, as well as interview sources. And most journalists have a life outside work. We don’t often meet mysterious informants in dark parking garages either.

While journalism can often be an exciting job, where you can meet interesting people and go to some amazing locations, it’s not all fun and games. As TV hosts, news anchors, and executives lounge in their ivory towers, their hair perfectly coiffed, the rest of us have been getting our hands dirty in the trenches.

Logging hours of footage, poring over complicated documents, searching for hours through electoral rolls, tromping through muddy fields, cold calling recently bereaved parents, watching footage of tortured greyhounds—these are all things I had to do as a journalist, hardly glamorous.

But dressing up for the BAFTAS (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) and the regional Emmy Awards—yes, maybe a little glamor for one night doesn’t hurt. It sure makes up for the stress of going undercover with an alleged cult and having to move because they know where you live.

Many citizen journalists do an excellent job of documenting events as they happen. This was especially apparent with the “boots on the ground” reporting of citizen journalists and bloggers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

However, having an iPhone, Twitter account, and a blog doesn’t automatically make you a journalist. For the profession to have any sort of legitimacy and credibility, and for the title to have meaning, we must have some sort of basic standards.

By all means call yourself a blogger or content creator. But journalism is more complex and requires specific skill sets and knowledge. Although the news media has fallen short of their responsibility to report the news accurately and objectively, there’s no guarantee that untrained citizen journalists can properly fill the void.

But it’s not rocket science, as they say, and I would encourage budding citizen journalists to pursue some basic training—journalism bootcamp if you like. You don’t need a four-year journalism degree that takes time and money (full disclosure: my degree is in American Studies!), but most professional journalists would recommend at least taking courses in the fundamentals of journalism, including journalism ethics, law and government, news reporting, article writing, research and interviewing skills.

This can be done over a few months, and the best way to improve is of course to implement what you’ve learned through doing. On the job training beats a classroom environment hands down. Just like with any other profession, it’s best to learn some skills first before claiming the title.

We’ll cover this in more depth in a future post.

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