Editor’s Note: This is the text of a speech delivered by Victor Greto at the Delaware Press Association Awards banquet on May 2, 2019.
My experience as a journalist for three decades, and as a professor for more than a decade, has given me at least one insight: that the core of journalism as a vocation and duty has been dissipating in an increasingly divided American society mesmerized by technology and social media.
Teaching classes at Wesley College for the past decade has revealed to me declining knowledge among students of the importance or relevance of an independent institution which keeps tabs on the powers-that-be, from federal and state governments to college administrations. In fact, it seems to me that the majority of news acceptable to most of us must be that which confirms our own political and social prejudices and expectations for it to elicit any kind of approval and to be sharable on social media.
This unfortunately encompasses many un-journalistic tributaries of journalism, including public relations and fake news. There is nothing inherently wrong with public relations—as long as we keep in mind its goals: to help further the positive image of an institution, corporate or governmental, public or private.
But the recent ability for many of us to understand that has been stunted by the rhetoric of an increasing cacophony of self-satisfied voices that demand and expect that their message, their perspective, their spin, is the only legitimate one; that all others—including and especially an attempt by a disinterested third party to make sense of the voices—is anathema to their message and very existence. It’s a denial of the point of a free and independent press, and it’s a denial of journalism as a craft.
I don’t understand the evidently powerful, personal attraction of the bullying self-righteousness I often see on social media. It is habitually accompanied by a profound lack of respect, not only for others’ points of view, but also for those of us whose assumptions are that truth—whatever it might be, however nebulous it is—invariably lies uneasily somewhere in the middle of the silence after the voices have spoken.
Democracy is about obtaining facts and deciding, while working with others and compromising, what the better public course might be. These democratic virtues have recently become confused with a lack of integrity, which has then been projected most glaringly onto independent journalists.
I am not naïve. Like any other craft or profession, journalism has its share of fakers—more now thanks to technological immediacy—of pseudo-journalists who cheat, sensationalize, and boldly declare their own agendas; who build—and are encouraged to build—themselves into a “brand,” to obtain a “following,” and to garner for his or her website more and more “likes” or “hits.”
I am not naïve. I also understand and have met and worked with people, good journalists, whose egos are bigger than the size of this room, and who use journalism as a vehicle to display that ego, or who compete with other journalists to make a bigger splash with a story or a sensational fact just uncovered.
Nor do I blame the technology. Texting, social media, and the ability to be in contact with whomever we wish is, objectively, a good and often comforting ability and extension of ourselves. But it has unexpectedly—and this only over the past decade or so—allowed the more fragile parts of ourselves to become terrifyingly caged within this immediacy. It has shortened even further our attention spans. It has somehow allowed us to be contemptuous of fellow citizens as they increasingly and perhaps unthinkingly express their previously most secret feelings, thoughts, and ideas.
By gaining immediacy, we’ve lost a lot. We have lost the great role of editing, which many of us had been doing more or less unconsciously for much of our lives. Editing, revising, rethinking, reformulating. These four essentials to journalism—and, one might say, to all good writing, let alone living peacefully with others—have increasingly disappeared down a rabbit hole of supposed glorious and “truer” naked self-expression.
This unedited form of expression has become the vehicle to “truth,” or at least our own individual truths, and sees no role for an institution outside itself; an institution that sees that self as only one of many, and as only one part of a social truth bigger and more important to the well-being of the community.
I teach my students the virtues and necessity of independent reporting and thinking; of the power of editing, rethinking and revising; of the profound sense of accomplishment one feels when righting a wrong, when holding accountable anyone with any public role, or anyone who holds any power over others.
I teach them this in the face of declining journalism in the United States, with the knowledge that more than 1,400 local newspapers have closed during the past decade; that an organization called “Reporters Without Borders” recently rated the United States and its media as “problematic,” and 48th in the world in terms of this country’s independent ability to report and write. Our country’s rating is sandwiched between Romania and Senegal, well below France, Spain, Austria, Jamaica and Costa Rica.
“Never before,” the report noted, “have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection. Hatred of the media is now such that a man walked into the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, in June 2018 and opened fire, killing four journalists and one other member of the newspaper’s staff. The gunman had repeatedly expressed his hatred for the paper on social networks before ultimately acting on his words.”
I urge my students not to forget the history of this amazing vocation, and the necessity for its endurance. The American press as an institution goes back to before the founding of the United States. American newspapers helped argue for independence. It is in the DNA of this country’s founding document, the Constitution, and is the only craft named in the First Amendment.
What then is the duty of a free press?
It demands governmental and corporate—all institutional—accountability; it demands a passion for the Fourth Estate’s independent history; it demands a profound understanding of its First Amendment role to inform citizens about what is happening locally, nationally and internationally; it demands an understanding that our readers or viewers constitute an entire community.
I believe this, the community, is journalism’s true ace in the hole. Our loyalty is to the community as a whole, however relatively small it may seem, from the world, the country and the state, to the county, city, small town, and college campus. Each community, no matter how small, is inevitably filled with many stakeholders, both group and individual.
Within this fact lies the key to journalism’s power to search for a social truth that applies to all. Yes, I am talking about investigative journalism and the nitty-gritty of covering city council meetings. But I am also talking about complex—and clearly written—features about our world, and profiles of those who have influence over us.
You, the student, you, the journalist, you, the multimedia communicator, can and must be a part of the evolution of this 250-year history. It is not an easy task. It is not a popular task. It is not for the faint of heart.
But it is imperative and necessary for those of us who understand that democracy, accountability and independent information, not bound to any one stakeholder or point of view, need skilled journalists: those of us who write and produce concisely and well; those of us experienced in the art and craft of interviewing; those of us who have honed the ability to sift through sources and distinguish facts from half-truths or outright lies; and those of us who want to help others and ourselves understand the nature of our social problems and issues.
It’s not about you or your brand, your social status, likes, shares or hits. It’s about your city, your county, your state, your children, the people you love, and the country and world in which you are a citizen.
It’s not about you. But it is up to you.
Victor Greto has been a journalist for 25 years and a professor at Wesley College for ten, where he teaches journalism and history. He lives in Ridley Park, Pa. where he also freelances and works on his novel. You can follow him on Twitter @vgreto