“Real reporting?” As opposed to what?

As the rise of personal media continues to offer newbies the wherewithal to take unto themselves the duties and responsibilities of the craft of journalism, cries of “foul” from the High Priesthood of the Big J are getting noisier and more frequent. I don’t write about this much anymore, because I so long ago crossed over that it’s really very hard to “go back” and revisit memes long since put to death in my own mind.

But a phrase that I heard recently in a conversation — and have now found twice in current reading — is forcing a little examination. The phrase is “real reporting,” as differentiated, I suppose, from dishonest, fake, false, feigned, imaginary, imitation, invalid, unreal, or untrue reporting. “Real reporting” is apparently something reserved for the keepers of an imaginary holy flame, one that must be kept burning if democracy is to continue. “Real reporting” is only for the few, and anyone who attempts entry to the holy flame through a side door is, well, an imposter — a purveyor of that which is “unreal.”

Here’s a statement made on a recent discussion board thread about the future of journalism: “If advertising continues to erode, who will do the ‘real reporting?’ ”

Indeed. Without advertising, all we’ll have is dishonest, fake, false, feigned, imaginary, imitation, invalid, unreal, or untrue reporting. Sounds absurd, but that’s the argument.

My friend Jeff Jarvis (who knows better) even fell into the trap the other day in a great post decrying the ridiculous New York Times op-ed piece by an influential group of J‑school deans suggesting a license for local (real?) reporting (just like the church tried to license the printing press back in the day). Jeff did a wonderful job of deconstructing the piece, but he then got on a different kind of high horse in comparing newspaper reporting to TV reporting (my umbrage may be due to my background in TV news). He argued that TV news could be improved if it merged with print (not a bad thought), but…

It could only help broadcast newsrooms to get a sense of real reporting and to get the work of hundreds of print journalists with cameras.

With respect to Jeff, I’ve worked in plenty of TV newsrooms where original reporting was the norm. The stereotype that all TV does is rip off headlines from the “real” press is not a universal truth.

But on the overall issue of “real reporting,” the wonder and beauty of journalism and the First Amendment are that they don’t qualify the press, because the press cannot be controlled or confined by any form of legal definition. For the press to BE the press, it must reflect the nature of those who are drawn to the trade — curious, rebellious, skeptical, resistant-to-authority, tenacious, creative, and resourceful people — not the type prone to any sort of conformist license.

Who is a reporter? We’re all reporters. Who does journalism? We all do journalism. Our audiences and approaches may be different than those who wish to set and maintain the information agenda in any community (or country), but no one has the right to say that your form of journalism is any more “real” than mine.

And so I feel, once again, compelled to state that the institutional, “professional” press in this country is the fruit of Walter Lippmann’s social engineering dreams, that democracy can only work if an educated élite (press included) leads the riffraff that is everybody else.

“Real reporting” is threatened, according to all this noise of late. But let’s be “real” here. If that’s to happen, how would we do without “real reporting?”

“We” will do just fine, because maybe what the world actually needs is some “real reporting,” as defined not by the status quo, but by the people who are sick to death of the monotonous, self-serving crap of those who wish only to protect themselves.

This is a core disruption brought about by the cultural shift from one that is hierarchical and neatly organized (a.k.a. Modernism) to one that is more participatory and chaotic (a.k.a. Postmodernism). And this is why is so important to be focused on people and not institutions when studying the changes around us.

So if advertising continues to erode, who WILL do the real reporting? I don’t know, but I think we’ll figure it out.

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