What is the Role of a Journalist?

(Andrew Neel)

By Mohammed Michael Harfoush

A watchdog, a martyr for ‘the cause,’ an advocate for the truth, and an occasional speedbump under some type of slow-moving bus — a journalist can be, and often is, all of these things and more. In a perfect world, journalists would be able to expose hard truths, bring unscrupulous behaviors to light, and be held up as heroes for doing such. In today’s world, journalists are more likely to be thrown in a jail cell for pursuing the truth, than be celebrated for their investigative research, especially when who they seek to expose happens to sit on a significant pile of cash.

Integrity isn’t cheap, and neither is an education, therefore journalists often face the dilemma of caving to what their employers need from them, or not being able to keep the lights on in their studio apartments. To be a journalist in today’s day and age, implies one will almost certainly be torn between two worlds: being true to their morals or being the best at ‘getting the scoop;’ telling it like it is or telling it with a ‘spin;’ putting their two cents into their story or turning a blind eye to blatant wrongdoings.

In many ways, America is steeped in an ‘opinion economy.’ Everyone has something to say about everything. To be a journalist, is to be inherently counter-culture. It can be lonely. It can be frustrating and, at the end of the day, it can lead one to ask oneself, “why did I choose a life so culturally isolating and socially ostracizing?” Freedom of speech is only valuable if you have the freedom to speak — but about what? Certainly not your opinion — if you’re a journalist.

We fight so tenaciously for a right we can’t fully enjoy if we do our job faithfully. What an interesting dilemma to which we condemn ourselves. The public is losing faith in us. The president denounces our profession. Pundits are passing themselves off as ‘one of us,’ and the public either can’t tell the difference, or cease to care. What went wrong? The money seems to be a major contributor to the downfall of objective and effective writing.

Traditional newspapers are seeing their sales fall. It’s harder to find ways to monetize our medium, and those we’ve vowed to police, are buying the channels through which we are supposed to be policing. Capitalism is both a blessing and a curse, a poison and a remedy, a hero, but one with a corruptible conscience, and in the information wars, the people are voting with their dollars and their clicks, and hard-hitting journalism is losing — badly.

What can we do? I don’t know. Most journalism seems to be turning into public relations, and when it’s not serving some corporate interest, it occupies its time by spewing out pop culture opinion pieces, both of which are, from what I’ve been taught, the antithesis of good journalism. The line between good and bad journalism is blurred, now, more than ever, and future journalists have their work cut out for them trying to distinguish where, and if, the line is going to exist in the years to come.


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