In the wake of Jacob Blake, what does journalism need?

Lou Carlozo August 27, 2020

Kenosha burns, when will we learn? AP/David Goldman

My close and longtime friend Mark Guarino is kicking and kicking and kicking ass right now in Kenosha, Wisconsin, providing the kind of coverage that surpasses the highest standards of his employer, the Washington Post. I invite you to read his handiwork here and in multiple Post reports. (You’ll need a subscription but right now it’s just $29 for one year. Amazing.) He’s there in real time, flesh and blood, life and limb, as yet another thoughtless, violent, asinine act by white police against black men and women continues to ripple like an earthquake, turning a fine city into a godforsaken mess. Now more murder, this time allegedly by a teenager.

There’s just one problem and definitely it isn’t him. While Mark’s work and bravery covering the Jacob Blake affair should be universally lauded—he’s a witness to history where we can’t be—people all over his Facebook feed are slinging insults. I can’t tell if they’re Russian bots or lobotomized dolts but the comments include, as Mark recounts them, “I’m a liberal east coast elite, my reporting is all fabricated, my colleague and I are ‘dogshit,’ I’m dishonest, my ‘ilk’ is complicit in the rioting, and—my favorite—’this is the type of work that Columbia journalism school turns out now.’”

Please, let’s not confuse what sounds like politics for what’s in reality fact—and go ahead, fact check it. Donald Trump calls the press “the enemy of the people.” He frequently derides the Post as “fake news.” In many instances, all on the record, he has encouraged otherwise sensible Americans to treat the press like a pariah. At the top, our president sets the example. Or should. But vis-a-vis reporters like Mark and everyone covering the Jacob Blake shooting, be they liberal or conservative, let’s label these comments for what they are (expletive alert): despicable untruths and fucking unfounded insults.

Regardless, the crowd is whipped into a froth and journalism labors under assault, complicating the task of covering the tumult in Kenosha. It’s simply not right. I don’t call my plumber or accountant a “liberal elite” or a “conservative hack” when she’s trying to do the job she trained years and years to learn.

Yet as my mentors taught, the distasteful-but-necessary prime directive when life is unfair is to look in the mirror. As Pulitzer Prize finalist and pop star Taylor Swift once duly noted, “Haters gonna hate.” But that doesn’t exempt us, as a profession, from keeping our side of the street clean.

How then should we approach this? In part two of my series on what’s to fix in journalism (if we can), I present ten more insights from smart, thoughtful leaders.

As you read them, think of Mark Guarino. He is living out what we should all aspire to as journalists and communicators: the role of truth teller.

What Must Change in Journalism?

“If I could change one thing, I’d magically restore profitability to for-profit legacy news outlets, including in small and medium sized towns like the one where I grew up. Years ago, my father was a small-town newspaper editor and publisher, but that paper no longer is published. The residents … suffer from that void. Robust journalism is necessary in a democracy. Unfortunately, a growing number of news deserts across the country are allowing elected officials, among others, to avoid necessary scrutiny.”

—Mark Hamrick, Washington Bureau Chief, Senior Economic Analyst at Bankrate

“I’d like to see media organizations hire and promote more people of color, particularly in leadership roles. The relative lack of diversity in most newsrooms today is troubling, especially considering how the demographics of the country are changing. Most newsrooms look nothing like the communities they cover.”

—Rachele Kanigel, Professor and Chair of the Journalism Department at San Francisco State University

“Public trust because without it, journalism is doomed.”

—Paul Armstrong, contributor, Forbes, Courier

“I’d probably buy a time machine and put paywalls in place for each outlet the day it went online. In other words, try to curb the current funding problem and signal to readers that they should value the news.”

—Kristine Gill, contributor, Fortune, Realtor.com

“Journalism is too obsessed with viewership figures and the need to grab eyeballs. … This is one of the reasons why important stories such as the Australian bushfires and the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China are pushed down the pecking order by stuff such as a Hollywood actor’s raging divorce proceedings. Journalists and newsrooms should draw a line and prioritize what needs to be reported. In this regard, I feel journalists are held hostage by what they think the viewers want to know, and not by what they need to know.”

—Jibin Mathew George, Senior News Editor, AMBCrypto

“I’d like to see journalists do a better job of explaining to their audiences how their work gets done. Too many reporters think that their work is self-explanatory, but it’s not the audience’s responsibility to understand; it’s the journalists’ job to explain.”

—Kevin M. Lerner, Assistant Professor of Journalism, Marist College

“More straight ahead reporting based on facts rather than analysis and opinion.”

—Ed Garsten, Senior Contributor, Forbes

“In a word: accountability.”

—Eleanor Terrett, Markets Editor, bloombergquint.com

“Journalism and journalists [need] to collaborate with other industries and occupations. I think this will advance the field and make it more powerful.”

—Jeff Della Rosa, Reporter at Northwest Arkansas Business Journal

“I’d raise starting salaries in the sector as a whole. I’ve seen too many good journalists—particularly at local organizations—leave the field because they couldn’t afford to stay in it. There are great jobs in this field where a journalist can thrive. However, the number of higher-paying positions is far too low. Lower pay is problematic for two primary reasons: an organization will struggle to retain anyone who achieves any renown for their work; and it presents a high barrier of entry for talented journalists who lack the support I know many have needed to start their careers.”

Taylor Kuykendall, Senior reporter at S&P Global Market Intelligence

Now, Lou’s Turn

There’s this 20-minute viral video on YouTube where Admiral William H. McRaven delivers a commencement address at the University of Texas Austin in 2014. What a leader—seriously. He’s got more than 100 of those little tiny color squares on his crisp, white uniform and tells the story of being buried neck deep in freezing mud overnight during Navy Seal training. He kept his chin up by singing with his fellow grunts. He delivers ten tips for life and I find them downright inspiring. After all, a career in J will beat you up and sometimes bury you in mud. We know this from experience.

Yes, it’s ripe for parody. (I’d love to see The Big Lebowski give his version with life lessons like, “Remember that the carpet pulls it all together.”)  But so much of what McRaven shares applies to journalism today—and boils down to personal accountability. For me, anyway, the things I do are all I can control.

But if I’m especially hurt and angry about one thing, it’s the very thing Mark Guarino is enduring, over and above rooting and rioting. Too many cruel, clueless people attack what we do as journalists. The one thing I would change is the one thing I work actively to change every day.

McRaven implores the graduates to “stand up to the bullies.” Do it. Now.

You’d be surprised (or not) by how many people call the media fake, socialist, part of the deep state—you name it—right to my face. Often, they don’t know what I do for a living and so respect me a lot. So I launch a conversation like this:

“What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a bank teller.”

“How long?”

“Why, 20 years.”

“What?!? What a fake profession. Here’s how to really do your job—what do you know? Now listen to me.”

“Huh?”

“Look. I’ve been a journalist for 30 years. Get it? Please don’t talk about something you know nothing about or have never done. Unless you want some bank teller lessons and preaching.”

The “people” who criticize what we do online? Many are bots. But the rest are trolls, sounding off from the safety of self-perceived anonymity. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to out a few. After all, if it’s on Facebook it’s on the record. Maybe it’s free speech, which I’d defend.

But it’s also verbal abuse, which I don’t.

Stand up to the bullies. Long live the Fourth Estate.

Lou Carlozo is Qwoted’s Editor In Chief. All opinions expressed are probably fake news. lou@qwoted.com

This week on Lou Carlozo’s “Bankadelic” podcast: Chris Doner and Mark Allen of Access Softek share their secrets of fintech innovation culled from 75 years of award-winning experience.