Growing up in DC during the 1970s and ’80s, the news involving African Americans was rarely positive. Thus I’ve spent my life questioning the validity of bias. Journalism should be a vehicle that disseminates facts and information—and it is. But the reality of who decides what news gets released and how, is plagued with bias.
Very few of my students, most of whom are African American, watch the news. They simply don’t feel that it’s for them. Unfortunately, I can’t say I totally disagree; yet I encourage them to seek out some news daily to ensure they are informed about the world around them. Every year we analyze Soldiers Without Swords, Stanley Nelson’s documentary about the evolution and decline of the black press, which highlights the need for African-Americans to tell their own stories. This sparks strong opinions and connections among my students about the information reported in the news today. While they are very expressive in their poetry, they feel disconnected from journalism.
So what is journalism for? A better question may be who is journalism for?
DC’s public schools are nearly devoid of journalism courses, despite research that shows students who take journalism in high school become better writers and critical thinkers. It was the first course cut from the curriculum at my school in 2009-10. McKinley Tech, it should be noted, was a nationally recognized blue-ribbon school in 2012. Journalism is woven into the mass-media courses that I’ve taught for the past nine years, but it is being squeezed out because the administration considers the content art rather than a necessary technology.
So I continue to ask: Do we want African Americans to be viable voices in our society? Journalism should be about delivering current and factual information for and about the diverse communities it serves, without a bias. But is the absence of bias even possible?
Judy Moore teaches mass media at McKinley Technology High School in Washington, DC.
I’ll start out with the first thing I see in my head when I think of reporters. A reporter is—or was, in my generation at least—someone who as a little boy grew up with distracted parents or, more crucially, a depressed mother.
At the dinner table one day he mentions that last night he saw a funny car parked in front of Mrs. McGillicuddy’s house. His mother comes alive at this, or at least seems interested. “What did the car look like?” Mr. McGillicuddy has been away. That flirt Herman Smith has a ‘58 Chevy.
“A ‘58 Chevy,” says the son. “And it was there this morning,” he adds eagerly, not knowing why this is important but sensing somehow that it is.
“Tell me if you see it again!” says mom, affectionately ruffling his hair.
A reporter is born.
But you asked what a journalist is. My sixth edition (2007) of the Oxford English Dictionary, shorter version, says a journalist is “a person who earns a living by writing for or editing a newspaper or periodical. Also, a reporter for radio or television.”
That sounds a little limited and old-fashioned, though the “earns a living” part is interesting: It implies the journalist spends most of his time committing journalism, which implies he sees it or approaches it as a profession.
My try: A journalist is a person professionally engaged in attempting to gather and publish information on issues of broad public interest. He or she operates in a public forum, such as a newspaper, website, blog, magazine, newsletter, broadcast or cable network. A journalist knows and adheres to the rules and traditions of his profession; he reports within certain guidelines, such as striving for accuracy, playing it straight, not making things up. Ideally, he is familiar with the history and literature of his profession. Journalists are subject to libel and slander laws, and related laws such as those touching on issues of reckless disregard. Journalism is not a free pass. On the other hand, nobody minds if they get some extra protections because we need them and, as a democracy, cannot function without them.