By ERIC NEWTON
Perhaps surprisingly in this day of write-it-yourself Web sites, there dwell in America some 125,000 human beings known as "general news journalists."
Hardly anyone likes them. The bloggers call them "mainstream media." Liberals call them "corporate media." Conservatives call them "liberal media." Everyone else just dismisses them as "THE MEDIA."
Truth is, it’s easy to bash journalists. Hollywood paints them as a yammering, amoral horde. That’s entertaining, but wrong. The boring reality is that most professional journalists actually have ethics. They’re good people. They try to dig out facts and stick to them. They hope to keep their corner of the world a little more honest. We watch or read or listen to their work because we need news — especially bad news — to properly run our countries and our lives.
Only the rare producer is good enough to make that into a movie (see "Goodnight and Good Luck," about Edward R. Murrow).
Since you won’t learn what everyday journalists do from watching talk shows, let’s run down a list of what they have actually done this past year, drawn from the entries to the National Journalism Awards:
- Died in war zones so we can know what was really happening.
- Risked their lives to warn their towns when bad hurricanes were coming.
- Explained how Social Security works and how to fix it.
- Revealed how crooked public servants squandered public money.
- Got polluting businesses to clean their toxic dumps.
The same city councils and state legislatures that complained about "the media" in 2005 took thousands of actions because of public support of local news crusades. Among those:
- In Oregon, they voted to replace a crumbling mental hospital.
- In California, they agreed to repair a horrible foster care system.
- In Florida, they toughened seat belt and traffic laws.
- In Georgia, they defeated an attempt to increase government secrecy.
Why should you know that journalists do honest work? Because journalists need you. When you read about a guy whose idea of public service is to hold down three tax-supported jobs at once (or about a $1 million helicopter bought with tax money to battle a gypsy moth problem that doesn’t exist, or about 10-hour waits in emergency rooms), journalists need you. They need you to think about what you’ve learned, and, if warranted, to direct your elected representatives to fix it. They need you to turn bad news into good things.
So journalists need you. But you need them, too. If journalists don’t tell you about this stuff, who will? The system won’t tell you, not even in America. That’s why all successful democracies have had a free and independent media. No system will easily admit its wrongs.
Free societies need people who can tell us when prisons are at double capacity, when schools are dropout factories, when too many teens get pregnant, when immigration laws aren’t working and when people are being poisoned by lead in the water. Good journalists last year told us all those truths and thousands more.
Yes, there are also bad journalists, just as there are bad doctors, lawyers, teachers, priests, politicians and businessmen. Too much journalism is still done too quickly. Too much context is left on the cutting room floor. Because of this, we need to teach our kids to be media literate. As Ronald Reagan said, "Trust, but verify." We need to remind ourselves, no matter how busy we get, to consume news from more than one source.
The digital revolution can help. Computer chips let us pass news to each other as never before. These days, anyone can be a journalist — in print, sound or video. That’s a positive trend. More news is good news. Anyone who wants to stick to fact — to the fair, accurate, contextual pursuit of the truth — helps the cause.
Does this mean our democracy no longer needs professional journalists? Hardly. Giving everyone first aid kits doesn’t make us all doctors. Giving us all printing presses doesn’t make us poets. As long as our society governs itself, we will need professionals who independently guide us to the facts we need.
The media will change. Journalism will survive.
But please don’t celebrate by rushing out to hug a journalist. That would just scare them. It would be enough if the next time someone is bashing "the media" you simply remind the world’s self-appointed media critics that good journalism, like good citizenship, still matters.
(Eric Newton of Boca Raton is director of journalism initiatives at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami. Last week, he was a volunteer judge for the National Journalism Awards, sponsored by the Scripps Howard Foundation.)