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Failed Journalism

Thu, Aug. 24, 2017 Posted: 11:46 AM

Back in college, I took journalism from a visiting Columbia University professor. He wore a perpetual frown and chain-smoked in class.

He had impossibly high expectations, making me wonder why I decided communications was a good career path. I cringed with every assignment I turned in.

Then he asked the class to report on a year-old regional protest that had resulted in numerous arrests.

Prior to the Google Age, research was conducted in a really old-fashioned way—the library.

After trudging off to search for newspaper articles regarding the event, I took copious notes and typed up my report.

A week later, as the class shared identical findings, the professor sat in a cloud of cigarette smoke, with brows deeply furrowed.

Then he stood and smirked with the kind of gotcha look that had me wondering what I’d missed. I’d used multiple references—so had everyone else.

But none of us had taken time to do research beyond what had been reported by the media.

We’d missed another story, which the professor now shared from his own research—he’d interviewed people who had been there—cops, protestors, bystanders, store owners who’d suffered property damage, and even some of the reporters.

The details cast a different light on the event. It became more complex and less clear cut. We no longer had just the antagonists and victims, we had to distinguish motives that had resulted in the event’s chaos.

It didn’t fit into the neat newspaper columns that we’d quoted so accurately. Scowling at us, he shouted, “None of you will ever make any journalistic contributions, unless you get off your ass and ask the hard questions.”

Then he threw our papers on the floor and with colorful expletives walked out.

This was well before our 24/7 news cycle with nifty sound bites that feed us but don’t satisfy.

It takes effort to dig deeper and to explain all sides. The college assignment I failed long ago is still being failed today.

If my professor was alive he’d probably storm into the New York Times and tell the editor, “You are a bunch of lazy-a@#$% journalists who would all fail my class.”

Karen Farris