A virtual minefield

Published 8:47 am Monday, August 25, 2014

Sometimes being a journalist is really not an easy occupation to pursue.

This notion played out in graphic fashion last week when a video of the beheading of American journalist James Foley was circulated around the Internet. Journalists willingly put themselves in the public eye, an action that makes them easy targets for groups wishing to gain a little notoriety themselves or wishing to silence reports about them. In death Foley joins a virtual army of reporters who have sacrificed their very lives in pursuit of truth amid the smoky haze of a variety of war zones, and not just in places like the Middle East but also in locations such as Mexico, where drug gangs have made an example out of countless journalists.

Here in Bogalusa, the stakes are not usually life or death, but the concept holds true.

When one enters the profession of journalism, he or she is already starting somewhat behind the 8-ball, as depictions of journalists in television or movies are usually negative. On the screen, big or small, the reporter is almost always shown to be a self-serving narcissist, eager to score the “big scoop,” regardless of who or what gets hurt in the process. As such, when speaking to reporters, people are often unnecessarily guarded, as though the simple feel-good community-based story will suddenly be turned into a scathing expose if the wrong phrase is uttered.

Granted, the media is sometimes to blame for this negative opinion. In Ferguson, Mo., where sometimes violent protests in response to a law enforcement officer shooting an African-American teenager have raged recently, the media is at least partly to blame for the unrest. Certain wordings and omissions have seemingly intentionally stoked the fires there. For example, while members of the public can speak freely about events, saying whatever they wish with little fear of legal repercussions, those involved in law enforcement must follow certain protocols and remain silent on matters until they are legally allowed to do otherwise. But nothing is said about this in the reports out of Ferguson, thus implying that the silence of police is akin to an admission of guilt.

As any journalist worth his or her salt would do, I am not making any judgments in this case, but merely relaying the facts as they are. Perhaps the police are in the wrong here, but the only way to get at the truth is to present ALL the facts, not just the ones that make for a good story.

Regardless, on an everyday level, instances such as this are the exception, not the rule.

The modern community newspaper journalist faces an increasing number of obstacles to doing the job effectively. The 24-hour news cycle has placed a demand to be not only accurate but also first in reporting a story. This is coupled with the shrinking size of newsrooms, where it is often the work of one or two people to cover rather large areas as well as contribute to the newspaper in other ways, such as photography and newspaper design.

Also, the rise of the Internet, and in particular bloggers, has increased the level of difficulty of the profession. Bloggers generally answer to no editor or larger organization, and thus are free to post pretty much anything they hear on the streets, regardless of veracity. Not so for those who work at established media outlets.

Lastly, journalism appears to be the only profession outside of politics in which people feel free to hurl whatever insults come to their minds at those involved in the field. People who do not know me have called me just about every name in the book and have even demanded my termination over matters as trivial as a typo or a misconstrued headline. I doubt the same people would march into a random office building with the same venom over a simple mistake or misunderstanding.

I am not asking for sympathy or pity for me or my staff here at The Daily News. We all willingly entered into this profession and genuinely love the work we do. But please understand that journalists are human beings with similar imperfections and similar goals and aspirations. We, too, want to see the community grow and prosper, and reporting on the both the good and the bad here in Washington Parish is our means to do so.

Also know that while we will always strive to put out the best publication we can, mistakes will be made, but there is no ill will behind them, and we will do what we can to correct them. And while we’re on the subject, remember that as human beings, we like praise, too, so if you read something you particularly enjoy, let us know. It can be a great pick-me-up amid the often-stressful workday of a journalist.

The Daily News is here to serve you, so if you see something you think we need to pay attention to, let us know. I’ll be happy to help in any way I can because I believe that is the true role of the community journalist.

David Vitrano is the general manager and editor of The Daily News. He can be reached at david.vitrano@thebogalusadailynews.com.