Sunday, February 10, 2013

What is journalism?

I've been sitting on this post for a few weeks now—ever since the Spring semester started—not sure what it was exactly I wanted to say.

I'm teaching Journalism 101 at Western Nevada College on Monday nights.

Mostly I just wanted to tell you that. I think teaching is cool. And I really like the hundred-level material.

Because it's an introductory course, the objective is to raise their literacy. I use a textbook, have guest speakers, we watch more movies than we probably should (Page OneShattered Glass, All The President's Men, Citizen Kane, Live From Baghdad...) and have weekly New York Times news quizzes.

Whenever possible I try to introduce them to as many varied forms of good journalism as I can. We'll watch the Daily Show and Portlandia; vintage Cronkite and Lehrer; even Super Bowl commercials. We'll listen to Ira Glass, study Eddie Adams' photography and read long form Wright Thompson (and Gay Talese and Herb Caen and Mark Twain and Steven Levitt).

Last week I shared my favorite Hunter S. Thompson column.

But what makes journalism good? Or for that matter, what is journalism?

That's the question I start and end each semester with.

On the first day we debate. Then, after an hour I have each student write a short definition. At the end of the semester—for their final paper—I assign the same question and have them go three-pages deeper. 

It's always a fun discussion and the responses are as varied as the students back grounds.

Sometimes it's hard to get them started. To move them along, I have a bunch of quotes I like to share. And that's what I want to leave you with. 

I started this list in college on a Sticky and add to it whenever I find a good one. If you don't have a definition in mind, you might after reading a few of these:

"In America the President reigns for four years, and journalism governs forever and ever." - Oscar Wilde

"I always thought writing was the foundation and the basis for journalism in the same way being able to draw is the foundation for art." - Bob Schieffer

"I see journalists as the manual workers, the laborers of the word. Journalism can only be literature when it is passionate." - Marguerite Duras

"I think journalism gets measured by the quality of information it presents, not the drama or the pyrotechnics associated with us." - Bob Woodward

"I would be lying if I said the journalism doesn't reflect my own choices as a reporter and a writer: what to say, what to emphasize, how to say it, what is true or untrue." - David Simon

"I'm in the reporting part of journalism. I'm not in the judgement part of journalism." - Jim Lehrer

"If an investigative reporter finds out that someone has been robbing the store, that may be "gotcha" journalism, but it's also good journalism." - Ben Bradlee

"A newspaper, as I'm sure you know, is a collection of supposedly true stories written down by writers who either saw them happen or talked to people who did. These writers are called journalists, and like telephone operators, butchers, ballerinas, and people who clean up after horses, journalists can sometimes make mistakes." - Lemony Snicket

"If journalism is good, it is controversial, by its nature." - Julian Assange

"If I'd written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people - including me - would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism." - Hunter S. Thompson

"It's all storytelling, you know. That's what journalism is all about." - Tom Brokaw

"Journalism is literature in a hurry." - Matthew Arnold

"Journalism will kill you, but it will keep you alive while you're at it." - Horace Greeley

"Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read." - Frank Zappa

"Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine." - Walter Cronkite

"I always turn to the sports section first. The sports section records people's accomplishments; the front page nothing but man's failures." - Justice Earl Warren

"The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers." - Thomas Jefferson

"A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself." - Arthur Miller

"You can crush a man with journalism." - William Randolph Hearst

"It is by the fortune of God that, in this country, we have three benefits: freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and the wisdom never to use either." - Mark Twain

And maybe my favorite quote (from my friend Chelsea):

"What is journalism? Hell if I know. But I have always enjoyed that it's etymologically based in the French word for day."