Marveling at the power of words

You all may recall my (part one of many) discussion on objectivity last post. Well, here it is. My encounter. Here’s the deal:

Last year,

Pennsylvania cut state funding to libraries by about 30 percent. They also cut access to POWER library, online database registry, by about 75 percent.

Since then, our libraries have been closing their doors, sending home staff, raising fines and cutting programs. It’s bad. They’ve been cut down to the bone.

In fact, since Rendell came into office, library funding has steadily declined to alarming levels, and Cumberland County Library System has had to cut one-fifth of its total budget–$142,000– in new materials. So don’t expect new books when heading to your Camp Hill library.

This year, libraries are up against an additional 9.1 percent cut in state funding.

They just don’t know what to do. In most cases, there’s nothing left to cut but essential library services and new materials. They’re looking to find funding from other sources like resident donations and bequests so they don’t have to make those difficult decisions.

But then I sit down to write this.

What’s my lede? There’s the option, “Expect fewer books on the shelves of your midstate library next year.”

But let’s face it, that doesn’t convey the urgency of the situation. That sounds like, “Eh, it’s just a few books, and it’s not until next year.” It doesn’t show the cumulative effects of funding cuts that brought CCLS down to where they were ten years ago.

I could instill fear with, “The literacy of area residents is at stake after the recent state budget cut to library funding.” And, well, it is.

But that’s Huff Post territory. Left-wing fear mongering is just as bad as right-wing fear mongering.

Even my original idea, “Pennsylvania libraries could be in trouble,” sounds too fearful.

The point is,

words are powerful. One way says, “I mean, it’s hard, but not that big of a deal.” The other says, “Donate your entire estate to your library or it will fail!” And neither is accurate.

And I can’t help but wonder if all journalists pine over their ledes and angles this much. It’s a tough gig.

I want to accurately portray the feeling of the situation, not downplay it, not sensationalize it.

Still haven’t decided on a lede. You’ll have to check the Patriot-News headlines the next few days to find out where this takes me.


On objectivity

Wait, let’s back up. What does it mean to be objective? Well, obviously, “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased.” Yes, yes, we know. We all know. I mean, it’s so obvious. How difficult could it be to…

Oh! There it is. The realization.

That’s right, folks. Nothing about journalism is objective. Not a damn thing. Objectivity is a goal of journalism, not a reality. It’s like “reaching for the stars.” No, you’re not going to climb on your roof and grasp a sparkly, flaky little white speck in your very hands. But it’s something you (an astronomer? an astronaut? a physicist?) should always strive to do, figuratively.

Writing news involves a series of decisions: from what qualifies as “news” to which words the writer selects to embody the story. Decisions are inherently opinionated. As we seek to find the words that most “accurately” describe a situation, we are depending on the accuracy of our own perception. I gather that my perception of a Tea Party rally may be much different than my father’s, and as follows, so would our word choice.

It’s fairly widely accepted that the 24-hour FOXNews network is, if objectivity were a continuum ranging from Math to Glenn Beck, well…  And it’s not just FOX, but every news outlet, every writer, has opinions. Opinions undoubtedly influence what facts are covered, who gets face time, which quotes are deemed more important, what stories are selected, etc. There’s no getting out of it.

It’s not something we (journalists, historians, teachers, educated citizens of the world) like to admit freely.

So, what’s your problem?

Thomas Jefferson, as many know, was a big believer in universal education (among white men, at the time). It’s pretty logical: You’re either a voter or a voter-in-training, so what’s the point in voting if you don’t know what’s going on? How are you supposed to make responsible decisions for the union without the knowledge to back it up?

The percentage of Americans who (will admit they) ignore the news is relatively small. During the 2008 elections (a booming news time) less than 8 percent said they don’t read/watch the news.

So, at least most people are informed on some level. But networks are being pushed out by their cable competitors. Remember, while FOX has local network affiliates, FOXNews is 24/7 cable news & commentary. CNN and MSNBC are cable. ABC and CBS are network. Basically, if the show tells you about Grandpa’s pantless journey to the local five-and-dime, it’s network.

Americans are drawn to drama, which lies in the extremes, who live in cable news channels. Instead of reading the 1,000+ page health care bill (not dramatic), watch FOX commentators tell you how Socialist it is (so dramatic) or watch MSNBC commentators tell you how Fascist the FOX pundits are for not supporting it (totally dramatic).

By now you’re picking up what I’m putting down.

Drama is interesting, but not that informative. Each news outlet picks the “most interesting” i.e. “most dramatic” points in any given event. Ideally, we’d watch FOX and MSNBC to get both sides of the commentary and read the bill ourselves to get the raw facts.

I mean, I try, but I’ve got a job, jewelry to make and a new blog to run, and there are only so many hours in the day.

It all boils down to: pay attention.

Be a responsible news consumer. Know, despite all labeling defects, whether you’re reading news or opinion, seek out weasel words and train yourself to notice when information is missing from a story.

Whether it’s intended or not, missing info always slants an article. Know that we’ve only got six column-inches to write this brief, so we can’t include every piece of information.

Make it your mission to learn more.

Relevant readings:

Public Journalism and the Problem of Objectivity by Philip Meyer/University of North Carolina

The Search for Objectivity in Journalism by Howard A. Myric/USA Today

“Objectivity in Journalism is an Illusion” by Joseph Appiah-Dolphyne/International Institute for Journalism

Who is the Photographer-Journalist?

I know, you’re thinking: How pretentious. Photographer-Journalist? Please. But hear me out.  Actually, it’s more than just photographer-journalist, but perhaps photographer-journalist-political scientist.

As I stumble my way through my college courses in journalism, photography, communications, political science and graphic design, I can’t help but think: where am I in all of this? I know I love listening, watching, learning and reporting. I know I love the camera and all her technical beauty. I know I love the inner workings of government, politicians and the people they represent. Where can I put myself in that process? How can I put a creative mind to use to serve others? Of all the roads I can travel, what are my goals? Okay, I said to myself, let’s break it down.

Photographer: As a photographer, I seek to show the world in a way the viewer may not have considered. For example, a recent project featured slide photographs of my family’s past, before I was born, projected on to walls and windows of empty rooms. A ghost-of-Christmas-past-type look at the question What is life without me? viewed through the camera from my own four-year-old height. Each room and each slide work in tandem to present my reflections of family, loss, love and longing.

The Family Room

Journalist: As a journalist, I seek to bring light to issues otherwise buried or ignored. For example, in my internship at the Patriot-News I find myself writing articles about hidden treasures in our community, like the Patsy Morris School of Dance, where an 81-year-old woman teaches predominantly inner-Harrisburg youngsters how to step in time for about half the cost of other dance schools. Or there’s the Harrisburg University Gaming Academy, where high-school aged children can get a jump start on an engaging career doing something they love with their outstanding talents. I’ve also taken an interest in animal safety and welfare (more on that later), when I wrote about a 14-year-old boy and his mom who chained themselves to their doghouse to raise awareness of 24/7 tethering and animal abuse.

Political Scientist: As a political scientist, I tend to focus on issues of advocacy and universal political education. I’m increasingly interested in the lack of knowledge possessed by many Americans about the way our  government works, how the people can and do influence it and what our nation’s actions represent to the world. What does it mean to be politically educated? I’m also increasingly interested in the idea of entertainer v. journalist in the politics world, or, where do Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart fit in to political journalism? I’m also very engaged in advocating for equal rights for all on a number of different platforms.

All in all, what are my life’s goals?

1. to enlighten and educate those on matters of public interest.

2. to bring to light issues or points of view not often heard.

3. to advocate for those without a voice of their own.

4. to bring readers and viewers into the shoes of another, to experience others’ hardships and triumphs.

How do those fit together?

Well, this question is so complicated that it’s essentially the topic of this blog and will take a long time for me to flesh out the answers. Really, I think they fit together quite well, but perhaps with some ethical questions. While I find myself drawn to advocacy, journalism doesn’t seem to fit that mold perfectly with its adherence to objectivity. As I choose my stories, am I inherently ignoring my responsibility to objectivity by doing stories on rights groups? Is helping to raise awareness of an issue through news coverage inherently supporting its cause? Can I separate myself from the cause in my writing? These are all issues I hope to figure out for myself and share with others throughout the process.

When it comes down to it, I don’t know who the photographer-journalist is. This is my quest to find out.