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Bad Journalism Starts With “Me”

badjournalismDon’t tell us your stories — we’d rather talk than listen. Forget the notion of newspapers as the first rough draft of history: think of them as diaries of our lives. A case in point is the Review section of The Globe and Mail, which, given its first-person story overload, could better be called the Me-View.

It’s impossible to pinpoint when and why many journalists decided our lives are more interesting than anyone or anything else, but Vanity Fair seems a good place to pin the blame. It was the first mainstream magazine to have writers regularly insert themselves into profiles of subjects. For example, a 1996 cover story on Tom Cruise by writer Jennet Conant began thus: ” ‘I know my limitations as a person,’ Tom Cruise is telling me. Limitations? I smile politely . . . Cruise is trying to convince me that he is a lousy interview.” In Conant’s hands, he succeeds.

From there, it was a short leap for some journalists to the next step: why bother with other people, when I can write about . . . me. It eliminates the need to do reporting, and there’s little danger of misquoting anyone if we only talk to ourselves. It’s easy to understand why reporters want to write this stuff, but harder to figure why anyone wants to print it. Some publishers say studies indicate readers are fascinated by the lives of journalists. But when you look at polls or listen to focus groups, a different conclusion emerges. Media consumers want to know who reporters are and how we gather news — because there’s a documented mistrust of journalists. That’s suspicion, not affection.

The growth of “Me Journalism” poses problems far beyond egotism — not to mention that we now know way too much about Mason Lee’s predilections. When “reporting” is restricted to studying yourself and like-minded friends, it blinds you to the perspective of others and strips you of empathy. In the same edition of the Globe in which McLaren discovered cell phones, she reviewed a book by the mother of Cassie Bernall, one of the teenagers killed by schoolmates in a shooting rampage in Littleton, Colo., earlier this year. Because the book includes the widely publicized but unproven assertion that Bernall affirmed her belief in God just before she was shot, McLaren dismisses it as “a tasteless exercise in American mythmaking [that] ended as a laughable sham.” It takes a special sense of self-worth to dismiss as “laughable” the efforts of a grieving parent to find solace in the loss of a child.

Another casualty of self-absorbed journalism is reporting: some journalists presume the way they interpret news matters more than the need to report it accurately. Consider President Bill Clinton’s blistering speech several weeks ago in Quebec on the virtues of federalism and the fatal flaws of those who oppose it. Those reporters who actually research their stories knew that Clinton’s remarks were aimed specifically at Quebec — because American state department officials told them so. That didn’t stop National Post columnist Scott Reid from scolding other journalists for making that point. He insisted, without substantiation, that Clinton was talking about East Timor, not Quebec. Does he know something Clinton didn’t tell his own officials?

If there’s any one thing that does make the life of a journalist different and sometimes more interesting than others, it’s that our job gives us firsthand access to newsmakers and important events. When that’s not the case, our views on anything are no more or less valid than the guy who spends every Saturday night in the neighbourhood bar, complaining about his boss, his wife and his life. And journalists already know, firsthand, what it’s like to listen to others pontificating: we’ve all been trapped at one time or another by colleagues who are former foreign correspondents, for whom there has never been an occasion that does not remind them of life elsewhere decades ago.

It’s all a lot like the United Kingdom’s Isle of Man, where a large contingent of residents consists of retired military men who served the old Empire around the world. To locals, they’re known, unaffectionately, as the “When-I’s” — because every reminiscence begins with those two dreaded words. In Canada, it’s relatively young journalists, not old soldiers, who attack in waves, boring the pants off you with first-person anecdotes. Here, to paraphrase a line from the old Pogo comic strip, you have met the enemy, and he is us.

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