What good journalism means and why it matters

Today’s column marks my fourth year as a columnist for this newspaper. While four years hardly represents a distinguished career in journalism, I never expected to hold this position this long. I assumed after beginning in 2000, I would write for one year and then move on to another project. Many of my critics would have appreciated my departure, but I found the entire column-writing process too enjoyable to give up.

In a strange way, it is the correspondence I received from my critics that has kept me writing, as well as the following reason: I firmly believe journalism, in particular good journalism, should make people feel uncomfortable. This discomfort should rarely, if ever, play to select audiences or attempt to follow ideological lines, which is to say, journalists have a responsibility to critique the ideas they find most agreeable.

My last three years of columns has certainly established me as a politically leftist writer with little desire to appear either as a pawn for the Democratic Party or a common-ground centrist. I make little issue of my own philosophical attraction to the liberalism established by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, activism espoused by the Black Panther Party under the direction of Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, as well as the work of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. These are only a few of the names that fill out my political punch card, but in the end, I do not think it really matters where a writer locates him or herself in conventional party politics. If a journalist remembers the opportunity to write in a public forum comes with a certain responsibility, ideological groupings will become cumbersome. I would like to say this responsibility requires being fair and balanced, but I am afraid Fox News might come knocking on my door – which might actually help me get a book deal, but that’s another day’s column.

Journalists and newspaper consumers must understand that words and language matter so much that I find the base level from which so much political discourse (especially on television) emanates embarrassing to watch. I fail to understand how a news program where two people berate each other with juvenile name-calling helps maintain Jeffersonian democracy. My own personal dread in watching grown adults act like apes in front of cameras or in print comes from a deeper concern with how the concept of credible journalism is losing its integrity to the likes of Paul Begala and Robert Novak on CNN or Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. Exceptions do exist, and I think the weekly news analysis by Mark Shields and David Brooks on PBS’s “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” is an excellent opportunity to view how insightful discussion from opposing viewpoints can take place. In fact, I could write a year’s worth of columns on how television news over the last decade has decimated the credibility of early broadcast journalism by trying to be edgy in the presentation of any issue. I do not know when or where the term edgy came to mean ridiculous and sophomoric or, more importantly, how it has anything to do with reporting, but so it goes. I do not think either Walter Cronkite or Daniel Schorr, television pioneers in their own day, thought the nightly news would become so mundane that the weather broadcast’s timeslot in the first 10 minutes would become the main reason to watch TV news.

Yet, I am not starting out the year as a nabob of negativism. At some point in the very distant future, amateurish and idiotic news commentators will be recognized for what they represent: bad journalism. Along the way, a group of quieter, more critically engaged writers will simultaneously be working to engage the public with interesting arguments absent from temper tantrums.

This coming year will be my last writing for The Minnesota Daily since my currently under-construction doctoral dissertation will be done soon. In the coming weeks, I will do what I can as a columnist who appreciates the sophistication of competent journalism to avoid the pitfalls of placating, appeasing and unnecessarily giving comfort to Daily readers – out of respect for my critics.

John Troyer’s column appears alternate Fridays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]