Editor’s note: Along with writing for The Red Shtick, Jared is a soon-to-graduate journalism major who also works for The Daily Reveille. Don’t be alarmed by his references to being a journalist — he remains a loyal (if erratic) contributor to The Red Shtick.
Journalists enjoy less respect than members of Congress. Every so often, this factoid comes up in various journalism classes, often with a vague sense of resignation. Luckily for both practicing and potential journalists, there are plenty of case studies that offer insight into why the average American may view the fourth estate with such disdain.
Chasing down Hillary Clinton’s van is a perfect example.
Jon Stewart and The Daily Show have long been dependable sources of media criticism, and tax day was no different. On April 15, The Daily Show featured footage of journalists running to try to keep pace with a windowless van apparently carrying Hillary Clinton to an event, and then pointed out the utter futility of their mad dash.
This was no breaking news event — the van wasn’t carrying some temporary, transitory subject of national importance. It held a candidate for president. Winning the race (for the journalists involved) would mean that you held the uniquely pointless distinction of being able to grab footage of Clinton as she stepped out of her van and walked to the venue.
The American people couldn’t care less about seeing a politician step out of a van. Journalists, on the other hand, have achieved a level of Pavlovian conditioning seldom seen outside of the most rarefied of echo chambers.
In other words, these journalists were sprinting to make sure they didn’t miss out on an event about as compelling as grass growing or paint drying.
The American people couldn’t care less about seeing a politician step out of a van. Journalists, on the other hand, have achieved a level of Pavlovian conditioning seldom seen outside of the most rarefied of echo chambers. An event has a script, and after the establishing shot, footage of the subject’s arrival is a necessary subhead.
But here’s the thing: It’s not important. It’s simply part of the process.
When the public sees journalists mindlessly scrambling simply to capture footage that serves no purpose beyond the process, the public can be forgiven for believing that journalists are, collectively, morons.
As journalists, we like to think of ourselves as being in the Woodward and Bernstein molds. We are the watchdogs, tasked with examining those in power and ensuring they are held accountable. Or so we like to believe.
But then we run after Clinton as if we were plebeians and she was some Roman general tossing to us trinkets taken in her latest campaign of conquest. We show ourselves to be buffoons. We become our own worst enemies.
It’s important to use personal pronouns at a time like this. It’d be nice to talk about “those” idiot reporters and pretend as if I were somehow different from them. That would be a lie. If I’d been tasked with covering Clinton and one of her early campaign stops, I’m sure I would’ve been right there with the herd, running like an idiot, trying to ensure that I got a few seconds of footage as she arrived.
After all, how could I have justified it to my employers if I hadn’t?
“Gee, boss, I know everyone else was making a mad dash to film Clinton as she showed up, but I figured you’d want me to be more dignified.”
I don’t think I’d want to try to make that case. Instead, I’d do my best to get the shot, capture a moment that doesn’t mean anything to anyone at all — a shot that had, basically, zero news value. Yet, I would fight and scramble and sprint for it as if it was the Lindbergh baby being recovered by the FBI.
And that, in a nutshell, is why we media professionals find ourselves basically doomed.
Innovation involves risk, and when you know there are too few jobs for too many journalists, you can’t afford to take risks.
Funding and staffing cuts mean that we’re as dependent on staged news events as we’ve ever been, and those same cuts mean that we use our professional checklists as a safety net to guarantee we don’t slip up and leave ourselves exposed in a hypercompetitive marketplace. In other words, when most of the large outlets are cutting back, the last thing you want to do is allow some other outlet to have footage you don’t have. Which means, if you’re at some preordained event, you’d damn well better have every angle that the competition has.
In a cutthroat world, the only choice is to toe the line and follow the script as closely as you can. Studies have shown this repeatedly to be true: If you follow the conventional wisdom and, in so doing, show yourself to be an unimaginative dolt, you’ll probably keep your job. If, instead, you do something outside the box — and in so doing, violate conventional wisdom — you’ll be unemployed overnight.
As traditional outlets die, their employees don’t innovate, even though innovation is the only shot they have for reinventing themselves and finding a way out. Instead, they fall back on the tried and true. Innovation involves risk, and when you know there are too few jobs for too many journalists, you can’t afford to take risks.
Ironically, your employer, and your collective industry, is in the opposite boat — news organizations can’t afford not to take risks in their reporting.
If the mad dash for Clinton’s van is any indication, risk is the last thing reporters are willing to embrace. And as we die, our audience isn’t empathizing with our plight. Our audience is laughing at us.