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Every year, journalists line up to get the societal punch in the solar plexus that comes from having the lowest-ranked job on whatever list has been created by — ironically — a bunch of “career-counseling” journalists. For example, CareerCast.com recently gave our industry the one-two punch of rating newspaper reporter No. 200 out of the 200 occupations ranked. It then placed broadcaster in slot No. 198. Only “logger” separated the two at the bottom.
Here is the curious collection of other jobs rated as “better” than journalism: Garbage collector, meter reader, pest control worker, butcher, roofer, etc. Yes, even “nuclear decontamination technician” is considered preferable.
The top jobs, by the way, include data scientist, statistician, software engineer, mathematician and computer systems analyst. I suppose if I were creating a quantitative-biased career-counseling list for a web site, I might just gather such a group of esteemed people. But you can read about the methodology yourself, analyze the metrics used and judge accordingly.
My intent here is not to criticize that specific list, other similar lists or other professions. They all are special!
What I feel strongly about is presenting a defense of journalism – as an ideology and as a noble and worthwhile career path – from the increasingly aggressive assault on its position in society, and its valued principles, via corporate raiders, special-interest groups, marketing flacks and many others.
Quick disclaimer: I adore just about everything about journalism; I habitually have read newspapers, listened to radio news programs, watched television journalism and clicked through journalistic web sites for most of my life. I understand that a lot of people do not like journalism (and criticize it mercilessly) because it peddles in truths, and truth often makes all sorts of people uncomfortable, especially those with power.
Along those lines, a core journalistic sentiment variously has been attributed to George Orwell, William Randolph Hearst, and others, but specifically has been traced to a placard on the desk of Chicago Herald and Examiner editor L.E. Edwardson, which read: “Whatever a patron desires to get published is advertising; whatever he wants to keep out of the paper is news.”
The messenger, from this perspective, often gets the wrath in the world; and when journalists share information about “the rest,” including wrongdoing, journalism often gets blamed for those indiscretions, instead of the wrongdoer.
Journalism has been called the Fourth Estate because it inherently provides commentary, criticism and regular truth-seeking checkups on the three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial). Since governmental regulation and control systems only weakly keep tabs on corporations today, the news media now also must work to expose corporate polluters, thieves and other types of anti-social miscreants cloaked in our contemporary economic system.
Pointing out such behavior – and airing it for public discussion – does not win many popularity contests among the power brokers of the world (see, for instance, the Panama Papers); but it does preserve democracy. Our form of government only can function well with an informed citizenry, and many powerful people in this society surreptitiously benefit from ignorant, unengaged and disenfranchised people.
Try to imagine the ideology of America without strong journalism as a primary component. In that respect, I’d say a free-press journalist seems like a pretty “good” job to me. Some of the people who have held this occupation include: Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Nellie Bly. Benjamin Franklin, Susan B. Anthony and Samuel Adams were journalists. So were Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman and Dorothy Parker.
Another approach to this topic might be to say that journalists embody “truth, justice and the American way.” That Superman motto reflects alter-ego Clark Kent, who just happens to work a day job as a journalist (a newspaper reporter). Peter Parker also probably could have pursued other professions, but he chose to be a photojournalist, when he wasn’t saving the world as Spider-Man. Americans have mythologized journalists like no other country in the world, in this sense, because the journalistic ideology is so integral to our continued way of life. Without it, there is no America.
Think of the stories we tell about our journalists: From Captain Marvel to Will McAvoy, from Mary Tyler Moore to Murphy Brown, from John-Boy Walton to Stephen Colbert. Even Kermit the Frog chooses to work in this business.
One of the greatest American movies ever made, “Citizen Kane,” is about journalism. So is “Spotlight,” the Academy Award-winning Best Picture film this year. Journalists have been protagonists, or critically important characters, in countless other popular movies, including: “All the President’s Men,” “Network,” “Ace in the Hole,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “CitizenFour.”
Try to match that legacy, nuclear decontamination technicians.
I think we love to tell stories about journalists because they represent something special and unique about the United States, and the American people, and our exceptional commitment to free speech, a free press and intellectual independence.
Being an American journalist actually is one of the best jobs in the world. You usually get great access to ask questions of whomever you want about whatever you want. You get to satiate your curiosity, and then you get to tell people all about what you learned during those discussions.
You get to tell the truth, in an ethical and thoughtful manner, without worrying about massaging messages for special-interest stakeholders. You get to go interesting places, do interesting things, talk to interesting people, think interesting thoughts and learn for a living. That’s the job. It therefore seems like it should be rated a bit higher on everybody’s occupational lists.
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at email@example.com.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.