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Why journalists quit the profession? Commentary

By David Schick

schick

David Schick

My “I quit traditional journalism” column.

I’ve dreaded writing it because I’m not convinced that anything I write here will add to the conversation. And who cares if I quit journalism?

Who am I, and why should you care what I think? Even if it’s all been said before, I think I’m writing this to explain—to myself—how I could love something one day, and not the next.

For clarity, when I say “traditional journalism,” I mean journalism produced by employees who are mostly chained to a desk, focused on typing up quantity to feed the beast.

It’s the type of journalism you’re most likely to see because it crosses your path during the day—talking heads in your home, a headline at a gas station, a subtle tone in your ear.

It dominates most other distributions because it’s been around longest and has had more opportunity to be repetitive.

But traditional journalism needs to turn itself around. If you need proof, ask yourself when was the last time you read something in your local paper, saw something on your local T.V. news station, or heard something on news radio that made you ask, “How is this news? Why is this news? What am I reading/watching/hearing on the ‘so-called’ news right now?!”

It’s not surprising why there’s more than one story out there about a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist quitting journalism because they can’t afford their rent or how journalism schools are “escalators to nowhere” or why entry-level journalists are being exploited to work over 60 hours a week.

No one respects the profession anymore, not even journalists, and no one has the ganas to fight for it.

To the people in the industry who’ve told me I need to “pick my battles,” you need to start battling.

You’ve given out too many inches—to public relations protocols, to government stonewalling, to advertising dictators—and now you’re being walked on for miles.

I realize a large majority of “traditional journalism” is basically marketing negative content, which writes itself and can be produced with little to no effort, but why are we the gossipers for the world? Who authorized this?!

All the traditional news does is deliver tragedy to your home, your heart, and your mind.

I’ll never forget covering my first crime scene. I arrived before the family. Their vehicle screeched to a stop at the crime scene tape and three doors flung wide open. The screams of sadness could be heard from the deceased’s relatives as they ran sobbing towards the lifeless body of their loved one.

There was a boyfriend, a girlfriend, and a previous restraining order against the boyfriend. She had only been in town for a couple of days to visit. She was shot and killed. He later shot himself. Not an uncommon story for this neighborhood.

I had just taken a photo of a large group of family and friends in a prayer circle outside the home. “You’re making it worse!” one of the family members yelled at me, and she was right.

I started to question the newsworthiness of murders. What details were important for the public to know? Which details violated someone’s privacy? For traditional media, it would appear the more personal, the better.

How often do you hear a news story that doesn’t make you cringe?

Imagine how many journalists spend their day waiting for tragedy to strike so they have something to report.

A sixth-grade student recently told me, “Journalism is sensationalism combined with bloodshed.” Bright kid. And he’s not wrong. As journalists, we’re trained to look for what’s wrong, not to look for what’s right.

In journalism school, you’re taught to be a bulldog.

You’re inspired to go after the tough stories. You’re told you to hold power accountable.

While traditional journalism thinks it has it all figured out with its code of ethics, it will let you destroy someone’s career on triple hearsay. Until you go after the wrong person, then it’s a problem and is swiftly shut down by the powers that be.

Unless you’re on your own, there’s no backbone in traditional journalism anymore.

Individuals don’t have the type of bankrolls and power that legacy media is slinging around—which appears to be dwindling. So what do you do? Why pick a career that barely supports its employees anymore?

I had more support to do real journalism as a student journalist. The Student Press Law Center referred me to a pro-bono attorney who went all the way to the Court of Appeals with me when I sued the state for violating transparency statutes. I fought the law and won.

When we stop looking for what’s wrong and do get to write about what’s right in the world, creativity seems to be restrained by style guides and editors who cut a line in your story because it’s too “hokey.”

I am posting the counseling statement I received on my last week at a local paper I worked for—and my response. To me, it’s another glaring example of why people don’t stick with traditional journalism these days.

Another publication I freelance for took me off a story for upsetting the public relations person at a school system. She was trying to dictate to whom I could and couldn’t speak with, and I wasn’t being “professional” when I made some generic tweets about dealing with PR people.

“We’ve made it clear to David that this is unacceptable to us. Unfortunately he seems to have let his frustration over not being able to speak to sources directly get the better of him.”

I don’t know a single reporter who wouldn’t complain or be frustrated over “not being able to speak to sources directly.”

How else are we supposed to write stories? And should we be spending our tax dollars on government employees who spend time sending screenshots of reporters’ tweets to their editors?

“The part of this story that alarms me is the editor taking you off the assignment,” Frank LoMonte, SPLC executive director, wrote in an email. “If the editor’s response to the PR person complaining is to take the story away from you, that gives the PR people exactly what they want—the ability to get the most aggressive, least docile reporters re-assigned.”

LoMonte continued:

“The idea of taxpayer-supported PR people acting as ‘mandatory gatekeepers’ to government employees ought to be against the law, period. If a government employee feels prepared to answer the question without the assistance of a PR person, then that’s always the quickest and most economical means.

Interjecting the PR person where she’s neither needed nor wanted serves no purpose other than ‘message control,’ which is never a valid use of taxpayer resources. Somehow we’ve gotten to accept this mentality that the government gets to spend taxpayer money on preserving a favorable image, which used to be understood to be ‘propaganda.’ This recent survey provides some data behind your anecdotal experience—access really is getting worse.”

My thoughts exactly, but I digress. Now I’m just ranting.

The biggest issue I take with traditional journalism is the illusion of objectivity. No journalist is objective, yet they are sent out into the world to report and are told to bring back just the facts. If our perspective is shaped by our cumulative experience, then the facts of individuals are subjective.

If traditional journalism is objective, then why does one person decide the front page?

Sure, you might have a team of editors discuss the most important story for the day. And those editors might get some input, but at the end of the day—someone decides what goes on the front page.

Andrew Bossone shared this link

“As Hunter S. Thompson said,

‘So much for objective journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here—not under any by-line of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as objective journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.’
So, I’m done with it. I’m a writer, not a journalist. The difference is that I don’t pretend to know what it’s all about.”

Access to the truth is constantly obstructed by corporations, government, and editors By SPJ Georgia member David Schick Here it is.
My “I quit traditional journalism” column. I’ve dreaded writing …
spjgeorgia.com

These Journalists Dedicated Their Lives to Telling Other People’s Stories.

What Happens When No One Wants to Print Their Words Anymore?

As newsrooms disappear, veteran reporters are being forced from the profession. That’s bad for journalism—and democracy.

 

Are you sure there are no more journalists in Yemen?

“Foreign journalists, don’t make us feel like you are doing us a favor by being here.”

“Instead of deporting militants, our national security deported a journalist. What a shame” wrote Yemeni journalist Hani Al-Guneid on Facebook.
Similar sentiments were widely expressed by activists and writers on May 9th, when journalist Adam Baron was wrongfully expelled from Yemen without an explanation. Until today, messages continue to spread condemning this attack on freedom of expression and some even felt obligated to apologize on behalf of their non elected government.The reactions to his deportation have highlighted a number of interesting points. It exemplified the reality that race/nationality/or passport matters in today’s media.Three days prior to Adam’s deportation, journalist Saeed Thabit Saeed sent a letter of complaint to the minister of interior, which he then published on Facebook. In it, he accused passport control, and later national security, of maintaining and using the same “black list” that Saleh’s government previously used against journalists and activists.

Saeed explained that he is often interrogated or detained at the airport upon arrival or departure from Sana’a. His passport was confiscated that day, and after some phone calls he was finally able to enter his own country.

Saeed is not the first journalist to complain of such harassment. A number of local journalists have been targets of intimidation tactics, violence, imprisonment and abuse. According to a March 2014 report by Reporters without Borders,

“Two years after Abd Rab Mansour Hadi became president, the situation of freedom of information in Yemen continues to be very worrying, especially as regards violence against media personnel.”

While it is very important that Adam’s deportation made headline news, it is as important to speak out against the numerous attacks on local citizens.

The last two years witnessed numerous violations including:

1. the murder of two young innocent boys,

2. a military attack on a funeral service of members of the Southern Movement in a public school courtyard killing 15 people,

3. a one-year jail sentence and fine of 100,000 Yemeni Riyals imposed on journalist Majed Karout, and

4. continuation of patronage through the $11.3 million allocated to the Tribes’ Affairs Authority in the 2014 budget despite the rising poverty.

None of these events made the international community question the practices of the current government. Why does it take a western journalists’ unfortunate deportation to make others see that “there might be something undemocratic” about this internationally supported government?

The second observation regarding Adam’s deportation is that while journalists have thankfully continued to unite in support of their colleagues, some have unfortunately used it as an opportunity to market themselves.

After announcing Adam’s deportation on twitter, a journalist was quick to immediately mention that there’s now “only one foreign journalist” officially in Yemen. Her tweet, taken out of context, implied to many that she was the only one left to report in the land of chaos.

I’m not a stranger to the hardships of freelancing, as my husband was one for quite sometime, yet this is no excuse to use this inappropriate time to market oneself. In fact, if anyone had the right to over-hype the issue it was Adam, but he did not.

I will not go into the semantics of what defines “official” in the dictionary, and what defines “official” in Yemen. Yet, I will say that the documents needed for western journalists to operate in Yemen are the following:

WHO KNOWS? Journalists have come to Yemen in a number of different ways. Yes, technically it could help if you have a journalism visa, but most of the time it is irrelevant. In fact, Adam Baron was deported even though he was “officially” working in Yemen.

Today, there are other journalists “officially” working or have worked in Yemen with very different residency papers/work permits. Some have a press card from the ministry of informaiton without a journalist visa, some are on a journalist visa, and others with neither.

Even the ones here without a press card work with the full knowledge of the Yemeni government, and in fact, many were officially registered as journalists during the 10-month National Dialogue Conference.

In addition, they continue to be invited by government officials to attend “official” events. Even the journalists without proper documents have traveled all over the country, met and continue to meet with high level officials, and publish their work under their name.

This is obviously not an ideal way to operate, as the government could easily deport them using the excuse that they do not have a valid visa, which the government did in 2011 when it deported four western journalists.

Then again, the government can deport anyone with no excuse such as the case of Adam. For this reason and many others, members of civil society and journalists continue to demand media reform in Yemen.

A third reflection is that it was curious how stressing “foreign” journalist based in Yemen was very important to distinguish one’s self from “local” as if it is necessarily correlated to credibility.

Yes, there is category of media professionals known as foreign correspondents, but majority of Western reporters in Yemen are not staff reporters. They are freelancers and work exactly like the local freelancers.

And there are Western journalists with Yemeni origins who are often not included in either the “foreign” or “local” journalist categories.

Foreign analysts and journalists should continue to travel and write about different countries including Yemen, as it can help provide a fresh perspective on things. Yet, their analysis should not be taken as the only credible voice in a country of 24 million people!

It is not the nationality that makes a journalist, but rather knowledge of the country, language skills, objectivity and professionalism. Whether the person is a foreign or local journalist should not be the basis for judging whether someone is a credible source.

It is important to remember the following:

1. there are Yemeni journalists who report to international media, and

2. Yemenis, like any other people, can also be credible, can also be objective, and can also relay the truth.

Why are local journalists in the west credible enough to report their own news, while it is not the case in Yemen?

Finally, while it’s admirable that some journalists leave the luxuries of their homes to work in less comfortable societies, it is important to remember that this is entirely their choice, and they do get something in return.

What you may wonder?

Well, where else could a new freelancer meet the highest government officials only two weeks after their arrival? This of course helps boost their careers in addition to their reputation. Once someone lives in “dangerous” Yemen, he/she is automatically given the “brave” award.

So my dear journalist friends, with all due respect, I admire your passion and your hard work, but please don’t make us feel like you are doing us a favor by being here. Please give us the respect and spare us the brave altruistic hero persona. It is not a favor you are bestowing on us to be living here.

I realize some of my journalist friends might be upset with this post, but I am sure that those who know me well enough will know that my intention is merely to give another side to the hype of last week.

While the government may not be friendly towards journalists, Yemeni people are. In fact, in almost every travel article, book or website, the one constant characteristic about Yemen is the description about the hospitable and friendly people of the country.

Let us work together to show the world what Yemen is really about.

Thankless work of a ‘fixer’ Foreign journalist

Andrew Bossone, a contributing editor based in Beirut and Cairo for the mobile news organization Circa, published this April 30, 2014 

The best journalists in the Middle East are from the Middle East. Thanks for your continued great work Mohannad Sabry, Moe Ali, Nayel Nabih Bulos and for helping me get my first byline in the Columbia Journalism Review

The thankless work of a ‘fixer’ Foreign journalists know they’d be lost, or even dead, without the locals they hire, but do they give them credit back home?

Foreign journalists usually find fixers from colleagues in the area or through online forums and groups like Facebook’s “Vulture Club.” If a media outlet has a bureau, it often has on staff a salaried local journalist called a news assistant. In places where there is no bureau, it may have a stringer who receives a monthly retainer to be on call and feed news regularly. Fixers, by contrast, tend to be employed ad hoc.

I first met Mohannad Sabry in 2005, when I arrived in Egypt for an unpaid internship with The Associated Press. We became fast friends through my roommates, and he joined me in Alexandria on a reporting trip to cover parliamentary elections.

I knew little about Egypt and its players at the time, and since I couldn’t put together a sentence in Arabic, he went with me even though I couldn’t afford to pay him.

Only because of Sabry skills and knowledge was I able to report from inside a polling station and at the office of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was the first of many times I received invaluable help and insight from fixers, the resourceful, well-informed locals who assist foreign correspondents. Most in this region are fluent in Arabic and many are aspiring journalists.

In Egypt they command roughly $50 to $250 per day, depending on whether big news is raising demand. A fixer’s day may include monitoring local outlets and Twitter and writing up a news brief, arranging logistics, securing and translating interviews but also conducting them, and providing background.

In the Middle East, fixers are essentially journalists but, all too often, they receive little or no recognition, even when they are entirely responsible for the scoops credited to their foreign peers. These people are not mere translators who provide a service in exchange for payment.

Our work—and, on occasion, our safety—depends on them. I moved to Beirut in late 2010 to gain experience outside Egypt, but four months later the Egyptian revolution started. I landed in Cairo on January 28, 2011—the “Friday of Rage.”

Internet service and telephone lines were cut across the country. When service was partially restored the next day, I called Mohannad to meet for coffee. The second night of curfew was approaching. We left for a friend’s apartment to spend the night. We stopped for food along the way, but forgot tea to keep us awake, and garlic and onions for the dish we were preparing—molokheya, an Egyptian specialty.

So Mohannad and I headed back to the street near the start of curfew. Vegetable sellers were rushing to restock their shops and close for the night. As we left a shop, goods in hand, a young policeman stood in our path. He cocked his shotgun and shouted at us. “We just want to pass!” Mohannad said. “We just want to go home!” “Which way?” the policeman asked. “Straight ahead,” Mohannad answered, pointing toward the apartment. “Run. If you go left or right, I’ll shoot you.” We ran.

Mohannad told me to go straight. I followed him. Although I had studied Arabic, the fact that I didn’t fully understand the officer’s orders reinforced for me just how essential fluent Arabic is. The influx of print and broadcast journalists into Egypt during the revolution provided work for a lot of fixers.

McClatchy hired Mohannad as a news assistant. Soon he was getting bylines and managing the Cairo bureau while the correspondent was reporting elsewhere. But when another correspondent came in to run the bureau, it was clear Mohannad couldn’t advance further. “I’ve seen a lot of local correspondents who are more worthy of having a foreign correspondent position than a lot of foreign correspondents covering their country,” Mohannad said. “What you need is someone who knows the country’s politics, knows the country’s history, knows the country’s geography . . .

This is something that’s pretty impossible for someone who doesn’t speak the language.” While at McClatchy, Mohannad received a reporting fellowship from the news website GlobalPost for a project to pair and train young foreign and local journalists around the world. It began in Egypt, and Mohannad was chosen as the managing editor. When mass protests led to the military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, longtime foreign correspondent and GlobalPost co-founder Charles Sennott turned to Mohannad to report with him for a GlobalPost-PBS Frontline segment.

“I never could have accomplished my work [around the world] without the help of a colleague—a journalist—who is local and who speaks the language fluently and can work with me and understands how we as journalists work,” Sennott said. “Those people are sometimes called ‘fixers,’ and I put that word in quotes, because it’s not a word I like. They do so much more than fix things. They make it happen.”

Mohannad introduced me to another Egyptian fixer in Cairo, Merna Thomas. As she described her work, I was surprised that she didn’t consider herself a journalist. Like other fixers interviewed for this piece, she suggests how to get stories done, lines up sources and conducts interviews independently.

Basically, Merna does everything short of writings articles. It’s not as if she couldn’t write, though; she was an English major in college. She says she fell into journalism by chance. Yet on her first assignment she landed difficult-to-get sources, like Bassem Youssef-often referred to as the “Egyptian Jon Stewart”-early in his TV career, as well as a member of the “Black Bloc” protesters who disguised themselves in black and were often on the front lines of clashes with police.

“A lot of times, what a journalist can or cannot get depends on a fixer’s personal relationship with these people,” Merna said. “I have interviewed a lot of people who don’t normally give interviews except that they know me and they respect me.” In two years of working with journalists, Merna has received credit in print just twice. She doesn’t ask for recognition, but some journalists have misled her into thinking their outlets don’t give credit to fixers.

Amelia Newcomb, the foreign editor of the Christian Science Monitor, where Merna’s work has appeared, told me it is absolutely not the policy of the paper to exclude credit for fixers. “We leave it up to the reporter,” she said.

Of the outlets I contacted—the Monitor, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Guardian—none have an official policy on naming local journalists who work with correspondents. Some are more fastidious than others.

The Guardian said credit is given when “people have contributed to the journalism,” but did not specify what qualifies as contribution. The Times and the Post provide credit to fixers when it’s determined they have made a “significant” contribution to the story. Tasks like logistics and basic translation do not warrant a contributor line.

Both the Times correspondent in Beirut, Anne Barnard, and the Post’s foreign editor, Doug Jehl, said the work of fixers is essential, and that they deserve credit for it. “Foreign correspondents have always relied heavily on local staffers to help with translation, navigation, sourcing and reporting,” Jehl said. “Until recently, those local staffers’ contributions often remained invisible; now, in order to be more transparent with our readers, we tend to recognize those contributions.”

Naming contributors is a positive step for transparency.

But it leads you to the next question: Why shouldn’t the very best fixers and news assistants be correspondents themselves?

“If I went to the United States I wouldn’t get hired if I didn’t speak the language,” said Moe Ali Nayel, a freelance journalist and fixer in Beirut. “Why is it the other way around [in the Mideast]? Why do journalists get sent to this part of the world when they don’t speak the language?”

Moe lived in the US for six years before returning home to Lebanon. He said that Americans’ lack of knowledge about the Middle East motivated him to become a journalist. Although he still works as a fixer, Moe has become an outspoken critic of foreign journalists. After one too many dealings with correspondents who he says mischaracterized context and people or outright distorted facts, he wrote a searing piece on his blog in 2010.

Moe admits that fixers who are less than scrupulous sometimes mislead journalists, but says ultimately the facts and ethics of journalism are the responsibility of those who put their names on stories. The fixers’ worst horror stories involve journalists on temporary assignment.

Merna said she has worked with many who come unprepared. Another fixer in Cairo told me that one journalist arrived asking to interview “Banna,” or Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood—who died in 1949.

Nabih Bulos, who reports for the Los Angeles Times, said a writer told him she was coming to report on Beirut’s alternative arts scene. When they met, she said she also wanted to visit the “opium fields of Hezbollah.” “It’s frightening,” he said. Let me be clear. Many foreign correspondents in the Mideast are performing superbly. (The ones who come most readily to mind, not coincidentally, speak fluent Arabic.)

Too often, though, news organizations are sending reporters who lack expertise. As I look at the fixers who call the Mideast home and are among the best journalists here, I couldn’t complain if I were replaced by one of them.

Says Mohannad, “If you give them the credit they deserve, give them the training that you owe them and endorse them, you will be building fantastic journalists and correspondents that would one day write stories that will win the world’s elite awards.”

Arwa Gaballa commented on FB:
A few months ago, I was fixing for a big-name journalist at a big-name newspaper. I got the journalist an interview with a minister, which of course he didn’t appreciate because he thinks ministers in Egypt just gladly agree to host journalists at their officers for hours. He couldn’t imagine just who I had to know/call to make that happen.
Anyway, we get there, and he starts asking his embarrassing (that’s the politest description I could think of) questions, including whether said minister thinks Sisi is doing a good job as a president! The minister stared at me in confusion as he explained to him that Sisi wasn’t president yet!
I had prepared a list of questions for him, but he dismissed it (after asking for it) and went with his own. The supposed-to-be journalist staying at the 5-star hotel and getting paid in dollars while I get paid pennies was incompetent and awkwardly ignorant of Middle East affairs and politics.
At the end, I got zero recognition of course, even though, like many fixers here tend to do, I conducted some of the interviews.

Bossone Twitter handle is @abossone – See more at: http://www.cjr.org/reports/the_thankless_work_of_a_fixer.php?page=all#sthash.d5yAfJUY.dpuf


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