The Non-traditional Life: The Joy of Journalism. Is it becoming a profession again?

Al Fairchild, Staff Reporter

In my first column for the Lakeland Mirror last September, I explained my definition of “non-trad.” Now, as I approach graduation and write my final column, I find myself compelled to tell you what I’ve learned while working as a non-traditional student on this newspaper’s staff.

This is the second time I’ve found myself involved in journalistic stuff. The first was during the early ‘70s when I attended the University of Nebraska. That school offered journalism as a major, so I got into it more deeply than I have at Lakeland as a writing major.

I recall, back then, standing at a crowded intersection in downtown Lincoln working on an assignment for a photojournalism class. The objective was for students to get comfortable taking pictures of people who didn’t want to be photographed. I stood at the intersection during the noon rush and snapped photos of complete strangers.

After a half-hour in the hot sun I began getting some really nasty looks from my subjects, so I finished my second 36-exposure roll of film and beat feet to a nearby pub.

The place was one of those urbane basement-bars underneath a downtown office building, accessible by a stairway dug into the front walk. I went in and sat at the U-shaped bar, plopping my trusty Minolta SRT onto the counter aimed away from me. When I looked up, all of the businessmen and their secretaries on the other side of the bar were hiding their faces, and I was being accused of trying to ruin their reputations.

That’s when I began to understand what it meant to write—and take pictures—for a newspaper. Journalism is the art of allowing others to make you the fall guy for their own sins. If you carry a camera, you’re out to get someone. If you ask a standard question of someone who doesn’t know the answer, you’re accused of “ambush journalism.” Ask Katie Couric.

If you fact-check the statements of public figures and find them to be blatant lies, you are suddenly biased and “picking on” the poor people. Case in point: The recent claim by presidential candidate Rick Santorum that most of the schools of the University of California system don’t offer classes in American history. Objective fact-checking revealed that they not only offer the classes, but actually require them.

The public’s expectation of how journalists should behave seems to have changed over the last couple of decades. Many more people now seem to demand that reporters be on “my” side rather than the objective side. It’s become so bad that candidates not only attempt to influence the direction of interviews, but have blatantly said, as Sharron Angle did, that they won’t answer any questions unless the questions themselves are on a list they provide to the interviewer.

It’s no surprise that the candidates do this. It’s all part of the game. What is surprising is that so many who count on journalists for the information they need in order to make informed decisions have suddenly become so lazy that they will march in lockstep with any extremist who caresses their social hot-buttons.

It’s daunting and it’s frustrating, not only for established journalists, but for journalists-in-training who are still deciding in which direction they should direct their educational efforts, and who haven’t yet developed thick-enough skins to allow the accusations to roll off.

I’d recommend that they stay the course with journalism. Trends go in cycles, and I have a feeling the media-bashing part of the current political cycle might be coming to an end. If I’m right, then it’s about time. Those who still take their civic responsibilities seriously deserve a real press providing them with objective information.

I’m confident that the media—both printed and electronic—will soon shed their lunchroom pundits in favor of responsible reporters. When that happens, the inappropriately-labeled “lame-stream media” will, as a group, regain its rightful position as the Fourth Estate of American society.

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