Thursday, May 08, 2014

Latest in trend study of journalists - why this one point bothers me

I had a chance the other day to read Indiana University's (I'm an alum, BTW) summary of the latest in its long series of studies of journalists, this one called "The American Journalist in the Digital Age." (PDF)

The full book is due out next year and follows on the last one, "The American Journalist in the 21st Century."

I was surprised by a few things, such as less emphasis on getting the news out quickly, in an age when the hamster wheel seems to be spinning ever faster. As I thought about it, however, it made some sense (or I was able to rationalize it) -- journalists are an ornery bunch, so it shouldn't be surprising that when the business seems to be putting more and more emphasis on getting it out now - and damn the verification in too many cases -- they'd answer that it wasn't so important to them anymore.

But there is one point that really bothers me. It's under the "controversial practices" section, lumped in with things like using personal photos and documents without authorization, using hidden cameras, paying people for information and pretending to be someone else.

That measure is "using confidential business or government documents without authorization." And those saying it "may be justified" has gone from 81.8 percent in 1992 to 57.7 percent today. (A good summary is at The Wire.)

Maybe that's "controversial." Count me in the camp that says it should be "de rigueur."

From the Pentagon Papers to Glenn Greenwald, with many people like Eric Nalder in between, some of the most important journalism of our time has been done only by getting those confidential papers and exposing them.

(Even Nalder's excellent "Breaking and Entering: How to dissect an organization," while it largely outlines public sources, has this nugget : Whether you are using FOIA with a government agency, or a mole at a private company, get your hands on the memo traffic.)

While I applaud the much greater use of the FOIA and data techniques, it remains reality that much of the "truth" that we seek remains buried in locked (now-digital) file cabinets.

I'm not sure why this is. But I see it among some of my students, too -- a corruption, if you will, of being in the age of vast information and data. That can lull journalists into thinking all that is great and good is just a few mouse clicks away and blind them into thinking that somehow it is "improper" to dig further.

It's hard, after all, to do those things Momma told you not do to -- be impertinent, ask hard questions, talk about politics and religion, ask a person's age, tell me how you know that. But that's our job description.

And so the IU results bother me greatly.

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