This past weekend, several members of The Lamron Editorial Board, including myself, had the opportunity to attend the Western New York College Media Convention.
Overall, it was a positive experience that generated some great ideas. The keynote speaker, author David Mathison of Be the Media, however, was thoroughly confused in his understanding of news media (and sometimes basic facts - Mohammed and Confucius were 1,000 years apart, not around at the same time!).
Mathison was very well-intentioned, I must say. He was speaking about the democratization of the media and how in today's world, with tools like camera phones and Twitter, anyone can be a member of the media and report a news event. While this hopeful speech disregarded the real fact that many people in the world still do not have access to these tools, the message was that now we can all free ourselves from an "elitist" kind of a system.
As multitudes of people have already done, he claimed that traditional forms of media are dying and we have to learn to use new ones. This is true in one sense but not in another. A kind of conceptual equivocation was at work throughout most of his talk.
Let me first say this: Speculation without follow-up is not news; it is a rumor. Mathison used the example of the young man who first broke the story of the plane landing in the Hudson last year using a picture phone and Twitter, saying that "a picture's worth 1,000 words." Yes, but a picture could be worth 1,000 wrong words! People could look at the picture and think terrorist attack, drunk or suicidal pilot, a problem with our air traffic system or any number of theories that were not necessarily true.
Unlike the average citizen carrying around a hi-tech phone, a news reporter has an ethical responsibility to report truth to the best of his or her ability, meaning that any statement of fact such as "a plane has landed in the Hudson River" must be followed up, ASAP, by research and facts which reveal the details of the situation. Are we wrong sometimes? Yes - I've already had to apologize for misleading syntax on two separate occasions. But the ethical obligation is there; we are accountable for what we put in print and attach our names to.
Is this democratization a bad thing? No, not at all. More voices should be heard, but the increase in the number of people reporting things leads to an increased need for - not the call for the extermination of - news reporters in our society.
Maybe we can't report through the medium of newspapers for much longer, but we're still an integral piece of civic culture. When you've got everyone running around reporting information, you need people who will actually go and research it and present a cohesive report of facts as they actually exist, not as people perceive or guess them to exist.
Perhaps not all news reporters hold the same high standards as I do, but that's a column for another day.