In my first journalism class at UNC-Chapel Hill -- News Writing with Barbara Friedman -- we would practice writing an article at the end of every class. But since we were just beginners, the professor did all the leg work for us. The students were handed work sheets with all the important information about the story: what happened, where, who was involved, why it mattered, background information and even a few quotes to spice up the story. Not original journalism by any stretch of the imagination. Obviously, almost all of the articles written by the students were pretty much the same: lede, nut graf, snappy quote and on with the inverted pyramid style.
I assumed that that would be the last time that I would see such banal journalism. I seem to be mistaken.
This class is exactly what I thought of when I read this article about political journalism by Kerry Howley, where he cites a story about journalists following the Michael Dukakis campaign in 1988. Long story short, the Dukakis campaign planned to have a "ball tossing" session with the candidate on the Phoenix airport tarmac. Literally, the candidate and one of his aides threw the baseball. It was a set up event for all the press people that were hanging around. But all the journalists reported it like they had some kind of inside information or caught a personal moment with the candidate.
In reality, they just stood there and let the campaign force feed them a story and complied by writing exactly what they wanted. That seems to be a big problem with journalism now: the reprinting of press releases as news and a lack of real in depth reporting. As Howley said on his blog:
I don’t know that any of this has much to do with the death of newspapers. But it does say something about the redundancy of most political reporting; we can all just as easily read the press releases online.
This is also why I think community journalism has such a large advantage over the big media outlets. They have more time and more ability to really cover all their stories in depth with original reporting. With a smaller reporting area, the reporters can really focus on their area and the people in it instead of just pasting in press releases.
It's time to put away the worksheets.