I’m not a journalist

A lot of people I know, both personally and professionally, don’t realize there’s a distinct difference between the kind of writing I do for a living and the kind you read in the newspaper. I’m a business writer, primarily a marketing writer. I get paid to explain things in a way that makes people want to buy a product, use a service, or work with a company. While I deal with facts, my writing is skewed to present my clients in the best light and help them stand out from the pack. It’s supposed to be biased, and it is.

Sometimes, I’m more of a technical writer — I explain complex topics to make them easier to understand. I don’t try to get people to buy something or use something, I just tell them how it works or how to use it.

Journalists, though, are different. They are trained, paid, and trusted to report the facts without injecting their own (or anyone else’s) opinions or prejudices. They’re honor-bound to “never reveal their source.” They learn to write stories in a certain way, using an “inverted pyramid” style to write concisely and put the most important information first. The focus is on sleuthing and interviewing to get the facts, quoting people verbatim, and leaving the reader to reach his/her own conclusions. In contrast, I often write the quotes that appear in my stories — I put words in my clients’ mouths, with their approval, so the words always come out right.

I’m always careful to tell people I’m not a journalist. I don’t like writing journalistic articles (though I have many times) or using AP style. I say this even though the lines between journalism and marketing have grown increasingly blurred. You’ve seen “advertorials,” I’m sure, those stories in magazines that appear to be part of the magazine, written by the magazine’s staff, but in tiny print at the top say “Advertisement.” This is marketing writing disguised as journalism — it’s biased, but it’s supposed to appear impartial.

Lately, I’ve seen more and more (dare I say most) “journalists” delving more and more into the advertorial realm — and not just on the editorial pages, where bias and opinion are the point. A few journalists and other writers have noted it as well. My brother recently sent me two excellent articles that explain what troubles me about journalism today far better than I can.

 In his article, Michael Malone, a journalist with an impressive pedigree, writes:

Now, of course, there’s always been bias in the media.  Human beings are biased, so the work they do, including reporting, is inevitably colored.  Hell, I can show you ten different ways to color variations of the word “said” – muttered, shouted, announced, reluctantly replied, responded, etc. – to influence the way a reader will apprehend exactly the same quote.  We all learn that in Reporting 101, or at least in the first few weeks working in a newsroom.  But what we are also supposed to learn during that same apprenticeship is to recognize the dangerous power of that technique, and many others, and develop built-in alarms against their unconscious. [use?…once a proofreader…]

But even more important, we are also supposed to be taught that even though there is no such thing as pure, Platonic objectivity in reporting, we are to spend our careers struggling to approach that ideal as closely as possible.  That means constantly challenging our own prejudices, systematically presenting opposing views, and never, ever burying stories that contradict our own world views or challenge people or institutions we admire.  If we can’t achieve Olympian detachment, than at least we can recognize human frailty – especially in ourselves.

He goes on to lament:

But my complacent faith in my peers first began to be shaken when some of the most admired journalists in the country were exposed as plagiarists, or worse, accused of making up stories from whole cloth.  I’d spent my entire professional career scrupulously pounding out endless dreary footnotes and double-checking sources to make sure that I never got accused of lying or stealing someone else’s work – not out any native honesty, but out of fear: I’d always been told to fake or steal a story was a firing offense . . .indeed, it meant being blackballed out of the profession.

And yet, few of those worthies ever seemed to get fired for their crimes – and if they did they were soon rehired into an even more prestigious jobs.  It seemed as if there were two sets of rules:  one for us workaday journalists toiling out in the sticks, and another for folks who’d managed, through talent or deceit, to make it to the national level.

Meanwhile, I watched with disbelief as the nation’s leading newspapers, many of whom I’d written for in the past, slowly let opinion pieces creep into the news section, and from there onto the front page.  Personal opinions and comments that, had they appeared in my stories in 1979, would have gotten my butt kicked by the nearest copy editor, were now standard operating procedure at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and soon after in almost every small town paper in the U.S.

In another excellent article (see, I’m injecting my bias there), clearly labeled an “opinion piece,” writer Orson Scott Card (a Democrat) notes:

Your job, as journalists, is to tell the truth.  That’s what you claim you do, when you accept people’s money to buy or subscribe to your paper.

But right now, you are consenting to or actively promoting a big fat lie — that the housing crisis should somehow be blamed on Bush, McCain, and the Republicans.  You have trained the American people to blame everything bad — even bad weather — on Bush, and they are responding as you have taught them to.

If you had any personal honor, each reporter and editor would be insisting on telling the truth — even if it hurts the election chances of your favorite candidate.

Based on the past year of election hype, I truly believe the mainstream media has become nothing more than the PR arm of the Democratic party. (And no, I’m not a Republican — I’m registered Independent, for good reason. I used to hate conservative talk radio — now I like it, if only because it’s a break from and a counterpoint to the relentlessly liberal and biased reporting I’m bombarded with everywhere else. I’m a Libra — the scales — we strive for balance and need to hear both sides.) If we, as a nation, elect the least qualified person ever to seriously contend for president in 8 days, it will be because the media told us to by skewing the facts and the coverage. And if we don’t elect him, the media will tell us it’s because we’re a nation of racists.

And you know what — that’s my opinion. I’m allowed to express it when I write my blog, because it’s like an editorial page just for me. I’m also allowed to skew marketing materials to present my clients in the best possible light. I’m not allowed to lie, nor would I, but I don’t have to pretend to be unbiased.

I’m not a journalist. And I can sleep at night. Based on how this election turns out, though, I foresee a lot of sleepless nights in my future — and yours. What or whom you blame those dark circles on will likely depend on whose version of the truth you believe.

I read no newspaper now but Ritchie’s, and in that
chiefly the advertisements, for they contain the
only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.
                                         ~ Thomas Jefferson, 
letter to Nathaniel Macon,
  January 12, 1819

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6 Comments

  1. Betty said,

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 6:43 pm

    A very insiteful article, thanks for sending it to me and i too am a Libra & try to see both sides. It’s hard to do this when the media only wants to promote ONE side.JMO

  2. Rege said,

    Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 10:01 am

    My local paper puts “news analysis” on the front page. What the difference is between news analysis and opinion escapes me.

  3. WritingbyEar said,

    Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 10:09 am

    Same situation when I worked for the local Historical Society — it was big on “interpreting history” for people. That always bothered me, as someone’s interpretation of history can always be skewed. Just give me the facts — I’ll make my own interpretation. Or, give me both sides of the interpretation (or however many there are) and I’ll decide which one I believe.

  4. robbie said,

    Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    There is little “reporting” done these days. I find it’s all editorializing coming from these so-called journalists, both in print and on TV. Journalism became a joke when the press deemed Katie Couric a “serious journalist” after interviewing Sarah Palin! I’m with you. Let me do the interpreting. Just give me the facts (as hard as it is to find the facts). The sad truth today is millions of Americans take all the journalism, interpreting, news analysis, editorializing, etc. as fact. Who can think for themselves ……… hhmmm ….. just what government wants.

  5. WARREN said,

    Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Off the topic here, but did you know that Orson Scott Card is an award winning science fiction writer? His best known works are the “Endor’s Game” series.

  6. WritingbyEar said,

    Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    I clicked on the link in his article to learn more about him after I read it, but hadn’t heard of him before. Obviously, he’s a good writer (and thinker).


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