I recently had the opportunity to look into the future of journalism and I liked what I saw. With one exception.
Actually, I had three looks.
- There was the six-week program at Poynter for 34 college graduates, half in writing and editing and half in visual journalism.
- Then, a high school boot camp for 42 students from around the country at the Asian American Journalism Association convention.
- Finally, still at AAJA, the Executive Leadership Program for promising working journalists who someday will be leaders.
In each case, the quality and the dedication of these young folks, diverse in every way, warmed the hearts of those of us who have trouble remembering if we were ever that young and that energetic.
Mentoring some of the students here at Poynter was a joy. I sincerely hope that the economic conditions the industry is experiencing will not keep papers from hiring them soon.
It was at the San Francisco high school boot camp where I was both thrilled and disappointed. The students were so bright, asked good questions, talked about their hopes and dreams with passion, looked at the world with more sophistication than most people their ages.
But then there was that one note that was out of tune.
Following a session on ethics with Rick Rodriguez, executive editor of the Sacramento Bee, a majority of the students indicated that they didn’t understand what was wrong with plagiarism or with a few other ethical violations. Or why such things had to be dealt with as harshly as they are in most instances.
They have grown up in a world where information is everywhere, where downloading copyrighted material without paying for it is fine. Is that the reason? Or is it something else?
Is it possible that they see respected journalists being caught and being fired, but rising again, in some cases as big as ever? Is it the cut and paste ability we have with the new technology?
Is there more pressure on journalists today because of the increasing competition? Is there more demand for production? Has there always been as much stealing of others’ work and it is easier to catch now because of the Internet?
Rodriguez was downcast when he heard the feedback from the boot camp organizers. “Truth and trust are so fundamental to what we do, so fundamental to our credibility, that I can’t understand this, ” he said. “I believe in redemption, but I also believe we have to take whatever action is necessary to maintain the trust of our readers.”
Tim Gleason, dean of the University of Oregon School of Journalism, on an AAJA panel, talked about how things have changed. He used to give a test to deal with the subject of manipulating images. But he had to rewrite it. When he talked about what photojournalists used to do in the darkroom with pictures, he realized that none of his students has ever printed in a darkroom. Some had never seen one.
But it’s not just a matter of age. Almost all of the recent well-known cases of plagiarism or of fabricating stories involved veteran journalists. And in a number of the cases, they were incredibly talented and successful reporters and columnists.
Bob Steele, Poynter’s Ethics Group Leader and a person many call on daily for his counsel, puts it this way:
“Mistakes are being made by reporters, some of them young, some much more seasoned. We must look at the obligations of editors. Those who run news organizations must model high level ethical practices and decision making. They must also continuously train their staffs on ethics issues in the same way they develop writing, reporting and visual skills.”
He adds that there is a misunderstanding that everybody believes plagiarism is wrong. Having been on the receiving end of disagreements from some readers on the issue, I know that is a fact.
But as Bob points out, we all must be very serious about the values of trust, fairness, authenticity and honesty and anything that undercuts those values is not only damaging, but just plain wrong.