Drive-by journalism undermines the essential role of a free press in the democracy. As media explodes, the news paradoxically becomes narrower and dumber.
Some people keep a journal. Others prefer a diary. Yet others maintain a daybook.
They are all the same thing, which is a daily record: journal is from the French jour, a corruption of the Latin dies, which means ‘day’.
The word ‘journal’ once referred to newspapers—a.k.a. the ‘dailies’—but the term has morphed from that. Today a journal typically refers to an in-depth scholarly or professional collection of articles, which somewhat oxymoronically, is typically published monthly or quarterly.
The Free Press
In news media of course, reporters are still called journalists. Which presents another oxymoron/irony: the best journal-ism isn’t exactly journal-istic. The best journalistic work comprises in-depth investigative work which may require months or even years to complete, and which in turn, is often serialized over several days or weeks.
This apex of the industry points to a problem with typical journalism, and with media in general. A free press is essential to a free society. All despots, and wannabe despots (the current one included), seek to reduce and eliminate the free press. Hitler had Munich journalists assassinated, long before he joined the German government. The President villifies the media, argues against the Constitutional guarantees protecting a free press, and even invites his supporters to assault journalists.
Without a vigorous free press, modern government cannot survive. So a decline in journalism endangers the democracy.
The Hot Coffee Case
Here is one concern of the modern free press: it is not enough to consider a problem for one whole day.
We have all seen stories where the media makes quick work of a situation, only to have a completely different story emerge much later. A few years back a woman won almost $3M against a fast-food restaurant when she spilled hot coffee in her lap. The media went wild with accusations of a frivolous lawsuit..
I heard a talk by an attorney who had looked into the case. and she explained what the media omitted. The coffee was so hot that the woman needed skin grafts to about 6% of her body—1% is about the size of your palm, without the fingers—including grafts to her buttocks and genitalia. She was in the hospital 2 weeks, and partly disabled for 2 years.
The restaurant chain who served her the coffee had received previous hundreds of complaints from other people who were also burned, but the restaurant did nothing about it. But the critical factor that instigated the lawsuit, is that the plaintiff had at first simply asked for her documented hospital and caretakers costs of $20,000.
The restaurant offered her $800.
The Fraternity Racism Scandal
I have frequently seen drive-by journalism in higher education reporting, particularly whenever athletes, fraternities, race or sex are involved. The media often takes a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach.1)This is still the approach of many cultures even today. Ancient German tribes practiced presumed guilt, and the idea re-emerged in the Medieval, resulting in the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials.
In the early 1990’s, students from a university with historical problems of racism visited another, more ‘enlightened’ university. At one point, one of the visitors dropped the N-word. The national media exploded as students, faculty, and the president of the host university loudly expressed outrage and condemnation, and demanded swift justice.
I knew a couple of the students who were there, and I asked one of them what had happened. Yes, he admitted with embarrassment, one of the guys dropped the N-bomb.
But then he told their side of the story. The incident happened when a black bar manager ejected them, after one of them was flirting with the manager’s girlfriend. On their way out, the manager knocked a drink from the perpetrator’s hand and called him “white redneck trash.” Reportedly, that’s when the N-word came out.
I don’t know if that’s accurate. I don’t even know if it would be exculpatory. I do know that major investigative media covered only one side, highly respected faculty reached conclusions without evidence, and that a university, one renowned for its law school, passed judgment without a fair hearing.
I also know that after a week of looking into the matter further, the bar manager and the university simply dropped it.
I thought that I had originated the phrase ‘drive-by journalism’ for this blog post, but of course, originality is rare. The good news is that the phrase seems to most often appear in articles by journalists criticizing their own free press.
The earliest mention I could find of drive-by journalism was a 1999 article in media watchdog Fair, accusing Rolling Stone of shallow coverage of youth crime.
Then in 2002, a book appeared with the title, Drive-By Journalism. The publication is a bit sketchy-looking—the cover is clumsy, and the Amazon listing has no ISBN, nor even a publication date (I found it elsewhere)—but with further research, I was surprised to discover that the author, Arthur E. Rowse, is a respected journalist. In fact, the National Press Club awards an annual prize named for Rowse. The prize is awarded for, appropriately enough, journalistic criticism of the free press.
Finally, I found a thoughtful piece by David Uberti on drive-by journalism in the Columbia Journalism Review, praising on-the-road investigative journalist Salena Zito for venturing out into the heartland in an effort to truly understand Trump supporters. Uberti contends that the media has become too comfortable lounging within the Beltway. Meanwhile, Zito is discovering that many of Trump’s supporters feel that they have been ignored by the media, and because of that, by the democracy. This creates a steep, and very dangerous irony: they vote for Trump simply because he is the only one who appears to be listening to them. Zito’s thesis illustrates my thesis about the sine-qua-non role that journalism plays in a democracy.2)Ms Zito’s journalistic integrity was questioned by HuffPo & Vox. I read through both articles, and although I am not a journalist, I didn’t see anything that would warrant scientific censure. In fact, I came away from the articles wondering if maybe the real problem was just what Uberti is arguing in this article: Zito is not conforming to currently accepted practice.
Finally, and in a karmic twist, in 2010 the host university noted above complained that it was the victim of drive-by journalism. Also of interest, the offending news organization was, once again, Rolling Stone.
We have been looking at obstacles to political progress. Citizens don’t pay enough attention to government; we aren’t very good at thinking about complex problems in the modern world; we defer to authority much too readily; and we are saddled with medieval educational paradigms that discourage real thinking.
We have also considered the problems of media, including the profitability of anger, but the danger in selling it. This post points to another problem with the media, and another obstacle to critical thinking: a cursory, journal approach to news and modern problems.
More News Sources, Less News
As our potential sources of information have exploded, our preferred sources of news have contracted. Adding to that is the monotony and mindlessness of the daily news, where most outlets overwhelmingly focus coverage on a handful of high-emotion, high-profit stories, ignoring more complex and nuanced issues, and then quickly moving on to the next news cycle.
Media attention is increasingly day-to-day.
And so our democratic deliberations become day-to-day. We are not trained, nor encouraged to ponder the long, the broad, nor the deep aspects of issues. But managers believe it is more profitable if workers are narrowly trained, and media and advertisers also believe it is more profitable if consumers are narrowly informed. And indeed, these things are more profitable in the short term.
In the long term, however, it hurts everyone.
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Drive-By Shooting, a photographic still from the film Dick Tracy, courtesy of Touchstone Pictures, copyright 1990. All rights reserved.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||This is still the approach of many cultures even today. Ancient German tribes practiced presumed guilt, and the idea re-emerged in the Medieval, resulting in the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials.|
|2.||↑||Ms Zito’s journalistic integrity was questioned by HuffPo & Vox. I read through both articles, and although I am not a journalist, I didn’t see anything that would warrant scientific censure. In fact, I came away from the articles wondering if maybe the real problem was just what Uberti is arguing in this article: Zito is not conforming to currently accepted practice.|