Wednesday, December 2, 2015
The Hard Work of Getting the News
We went to see the movie “Spotlight” last week, and like nearly everyone else thought it was terrific. Viewing it from the perspective of a former newspaperman, I couldn’t help but think about it in the context of today’s news business.
The film tells the story of a team of four reporters from the Boston Globe who, in 2001-02, uncovered the widespread pattern of pedophilia by priests in the Boston diocese and the systematic degree to which the Catholic Church covered it up. It took a year of attacking the story from multiple angles before the paper finally had it nailed down and ready to print.
A little more than a decade later, things have changed. Four reporters no longer constitute a special investigative team. In too many cases, four reporters is the whole newsroom, and that obviously has a limiting effect on any news operation’s ability to investigate a large, complex story.
When It Takes More Than a Tweet
This has been a while coming, but I could see it on the horizon when I left the business more than 20 years ago. I vividly remember a conversation I had toward the end with a corporate executive whose office was far, far away from the town our newspaper served. Arguing against budget cuts, I made the point that when a reporter is cut from the news staff, that amounts to two to three hundred stories a year that don’t get covered.
“That’s the old way of thinking,” the executive replied, strongly implying that there was something wrong with me for not being able to figure out how to generate professionally written news stories without any people to research and write them.
What “Spotlight” depicts so well is the phenomenal amount of hard work and ingenuity that goes into running a story to earth. It takes an understanding of the wide range of ways of getting information (from interviews to poring over documents until your eyes glaze over) that non-professionals simply don’t have. Sure, anybody can tweet a photo or a putative factoid, but a complex story that someone doesn’t want told? That’s another matter.
Making Sense out of Chaos
Seeing the movie shortly after the terror attacks in Paris brought home another point. It takes both professionalism and time to make sense out of a huge breaking story like the Paris attacks. But we have become a society that wants to wait for nothing, hence a much more partially (and dangerously) informed society.
Writing in the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo, a technology columnist, noted that the internet, and Twitter in particular, in the wake of a big, messy story like the terror attacks, is a maelstrom of knee-jerk opinion and misinformation (slightly paraphrased).
The great CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow once said, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on.” Instant communication has made that situation even worse, and I have to wonder how many people will remember things about Paris years from now that simply aren’t true, but that came out in the immediate aftermath without proper vetting.
I agree with Manjoo. If you really want to be informed about a story like Paris, turn off the TV, don’t look at the internet, and wait a day until the facts have been sorted out and the worst misinformation has receded into the background.
As if anyone will do that.