A Cautionary Tale of Postmodern Journalism

the Offsetter and Interisland Terminal are hosting DEADLINE: A Journalism Film Series Wednesday through Friday, Jan. 8–10, at R/D. For this series, local journalists, editors, and publishers have written essays responding to the three films featured: Good Night, and Good LuckA Fragile Trust, and All the President’s Men. Here, journalism and public relations veteran Gene Park looks at the evolution (or devolution, depending on who you ask) of journalism in this era of click bait and fast publication.

“The system broke down,” said Lisa Tozzi, a news editor at BuzzFeed, in response to why her organization published a story about a fight that never happened between a reality TV show producer and a stranger.

Tozzi used to work at The New York Times, but her current job at the hyper-popular news and social media site now easily trumps her former employer’s when it comes to web traffic. She was unapologetic about BuzzFeed’s decision to run a story on a fake Thanksgiving feud that was primarily fueled by Twitter and her employer’s brand of viral media.

The 2013 documentary A Fragile Trust, therefore, does not cover new ground when it comes to the circumstances of Jayson Blair’s flagrant acts of plagiarism: lifting direct quotes from places and people he had not seen or met.

In the film, Blair talks about the stress of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, his duty to perform, the pressure to do more with less, and the effects this all had on his confused, battered ego.

But when Blair says he saw the Times as “my own special place in the swirling madness,” that journalism, to him, was “instant gratification,” and that he was “constantly chasing this high,” A Fragile Trust emerges not just as a retelling of an ex-journalist’s story, but also as a cautionary tale for postmodern journalism. It’s a fable on what happens when a receptive audience and editors believe anything they read as long as it’s a good story.

In recent years, reporters have been encouraged to carve out their own personal brands while upholding the mission of established ones such as the Times or the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Despite shrinking revenues for newspapers and a 30 percent drop in newsroom jobs from 2004 to 2012, visibility is higher than ever.

It’s an age when journalists are asked to maintain dignity while their industry evolves around them daily. Coded words are used interchangeably with their craft: Writing a story is now called “content creation”, and readers are now “users” from which “user-generated content” stems (to paraphrase Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten).

When the Canadian radio show Day 6 pointed out to Tozzi that any reporter would’ve been fired for reporting the Twitter-fight hoax as a story, she retorted that traditional media also covered the story. “It’s not totally accurate to say that we’re trying to play by different rules.”

Therein lies the rub. If she believes her organization to be a faultless response to an evolving industry, but others believe it to be the reason the industry has changed, when does the blame end? Was Jayson Blair the lone perpetrator of his journalism crimes? Or is he a victim of circumstances that befall all of us?

At Civil Beat, our reporters are still encouraged to build their brands, but only to hold them accountable for their work as well. There’s a face and name to our words, our own special places in the swirling madness.

The road to branding doesn’t have to be a gauntlet in which journalists like Blair and Tozzi must relentlessly defend their created content. A Fragile Trust is a reflection of journalism’s own shattered image, and lessons from Blair’s falsehoods are deep reminders that journalism is a human craft, with human errors and human choices. Good journalism is a personal choice made to ensure that the system doesn’t break down.

Gene Park is the engagement editor for Civil Beat.

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