Monday, July 11, 2011

Up close and crazy!

I love it when journalism happens.
During the past week, I’ve been in London beginning an effort to acquaint 14 American students with varying degrees of interest in mass communication with the similarities and differences among American and British journalism. 
The demise of the News of the World could NOT have happened at a more opportune time.
The phone hacking scandal originally came to light in 2009 when I was here doing a similar task for USM’s British Studies Program. It was my first time to teach solo in the program – I had shadowed David R. Davies, my colleague and friend, during the summer 2008 to learn the ropes. And, while I was intrigued by the reports, at the time, I have to admit I was more concerned about finding the correct bus or tube to  get my charges from one spot to another.
But this year is different. This year the connection between phone hacking by NOTW personnel and the murders of ordinary people – children in two cases – as well as a connection to police corruption and the unfortunate employ of a former NOTW editor by the English prime minister has turned this story into a virtual soap opera. And this soap opera has so many plot lines that, in playing themselves out, will likely result in continued controversy for all sorts of people at all sorts of levels of life in Britain.
Investigative journalism is not a job for sissies. If you’re going to delve deeply into peoples’ lives and get to the truth, a combination of thick skin, dogged determination and a very strong work ethic is required. On top of this, you also need a quick mind to be able to sort through what people tell you and what they don’t say as readily. I often found in my reporting days that being able to accurately read those nonverbals you get from your sources can be how the story ultimately gets told.
From my perspective, I’d say the folks at NOTW called themselves investigative journalists. And, like much of the British press, they succeeded in some ways, shining a light on issues ranging from child abuse and neglect to the latest celebrity sleepover. The news-consuming public here, it seems, appreciate the many different perspectives presented in print news and even check multiple sources in one day to get the latest, the most bizarre, the wildest twist on a breaking story.
But do they do it better than we do in America? I’m not sure.
American reporters often tend to follow the pack more than they should. They re-report and re-package the party line and give up before the story gives out in many cases. Is it a lack of attention? Possibly. Laziness? Probably. Is it a fear of exposing too much? Doubtful. Is it a respect for boundaries? Oh, please!
I think the UK needs to take a long look at Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. And back in the states, it probably would not be a bad idea for the Federal Communications Commission to review his holdings as well. This whole issue seems to have more to do with Murdoch’s bid to acquire BSkyB television than it does with any kind of remorse or admission of guilt in the phone hacking scandal.
In the end, for me, it’s really a difference between right and wrong. Competition is fierce for the best and first story here. But breaking the law to get it? I don’t think so.
It’s also a difference between covering the news and being the news. In my opinion, any time a media outlet of any kind becomes the news, they’ve let somebody down. And usually, it’s the public they seek to inform. 
           -- by Maggie Williams, who may be learning as much as she's teaching this summer in London.

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