How could it be that after thirteen years of planning for a career in journalism I decided to walk away from it? What were the reasons to my strong feelings about the work?
The things I mention in this blog post do not mean they are absolute truths, something that goes for everything and everyone. Instead, they are my own opinions and how I’ve experienced working as a journalist. They are also mainly focused on experience from local newspaper journalism instead of the longer, investigative kind.
With these things in mind – let’s dive in!
Drawn To Drama
I was working on a news article when the chief editor came to me, telling me to pack my camera, microphone and notebook, and head to a small town that was a thirty-minute drive away. Apparently, a fire had started and they wanted to get a live feed going from the site and a quick update with a photo on their social media.
Almost on my way, they reached the fire department who told them that it was a false alarm. Fortunately for me, no fire was roaming and I didn’t have to document it. But they would have loved a news piece like that.
Especially local newspapers and news sites are very dependent on their total amount of clicks and readers. That means that they often aim to write about not only things that are important (such as political news) but also surprising and get the reader’s attention.
Unfortunately, what seems to sell the most and attract the greatest amount of readers and views, are news that have to do with traffic accidents, murders, terrorism, vandalism, violence and other similar happenings. We humans tend to be drawn to drama, other people’s problems and conflicts. That’s just the way it is.
I, however, try to avoid that kind of news as much as possible. I decided a long time ago to stop reading that kind of news, because I believe that the information I get from the articles doesn’t improve my life in any way. It just adds to the information overload.
But as a journalist, I was forced to come across this kind of news. It could be the talk of the day in the newsroom or something that came up in a conversation with someone. Maybe I would write a short news piece on the topic, or interview a victim or an authority. Although a story about a murder didn’t maybe ruin my day, it still had its effect on me. It was unnecessary information, shifting my focus away from things that did matter.
And that was one of the reasons that drove me away from daily journalism: the active seeking of drama and unfortunate events.
Conflicts and Controversies
Two other attention-catching and curiosity-awakening news are those that either highlight a conflict or a controversy.
Conflicts – we are drawn to stories that present a classical good-and-evil setting. They describe a conflict that exists between a victim, the ”good” person, and an authority, the ”evil” one. This can be a news story about a political decision and what kind of effect it has on different socio-economic groups in the society. The stories tend to highlight the conflict, the ones who benefit the most and the least from a decision or an event.
Controversies – topics that arouse (negative) feelings or strong opinions are another great way to catch readers. Drug abuse, law-breaking, sexuality, religion, predators near humans… the list could go on and on. There’s a great deal of people out there who have a strong opinion about many things – sometimes they are well motivated arguments, at other times not as much. And those who aren’t maybe that interested in joining the public conversation, are still curious to follow the conversation.
This kind of news often tell about an important or critical challenge in society, and are therefore needed. But both conflicts and controversies are often negatively portrayed.
When I wanted to write about a topic that had to do with one of them, I couldn’t go on with the story unless I had a victim – someone who had suffered from the conflict I was interested in (e.g. a political decision) or the controversy (being an abuser, for instance). It was the key to every article: finding a victim with a good story. Without a victim, there was no news story and nothing that would attract readers to read the story.
I think one of the most thought-awakening experiences regarding these kind of stories was when we were working on a documentary at school and our teacher said that finding a victim with a story was the key to creating a good documentary. His actual words were ”The worse he or she feels, the better.”
I knew he had a point because a good story is intriguing and makes everything so much more real – but at the same time I had the thought even if it’s true it doesn’t make it right. To ride on someone else’s pain, suffering or trauma felt wrong, especially when I probably couldn’t help the person deal with the pain. I was there only to do my job – write a news article.
The negativity in many of the news articles I wrote didn’t help me feel more motivated about my job. I felt that we weren’t going deep enough, we didn’t even get started on the subject before I had already written 800 words on the subject and had reached the maximum amount of words for the news piece.
Giving People What They Want
As I’ve described above, readers are easily drawn to stories that highlight conflicts, controversies, misfortunes, bad choices and violence. Writing that list feels awful but that’s the way it is. It’s as if many wish to color their own safe and balanced lives with tragic stories of others. It’s also to have something to talk about with friends and colleagues and wonder how other people live their lives and what is wrong with the society.
And many aren’t even capable of explaining why they are so intrigued by these news – they just are.
As a consequence of this, media houses, chief editors and journalists are willing to feed the addiction of us people by giving more such news. Thus they manage to get their readers to come to the home page more often, follow them on social media, click on the news and read them. In this way, the newspaper gets more readers which means more money and a more stable future for the media house.
And that’s completely understandable – and completely twisted. Shouldn’t we read more about innovations, new ways of doing things, instead of focusing on only highlighting problems? What about hearing about people or groups with positive energy who create change and make things better in the society, instead of horror stories about drunk-drivers and abusers? Maybe read about how to live a healthy, fulfilling life, how to help others, how to improve, instead of lifting up what diseases are taking down most people?
Shouldn’t these topics be the reason people come back to a page and click onward, to read something that actually add value to their lives, instead of filling them with scandalous and negative information?
This is, at least, what I was constantly thinking about while working as journalist and something that still feels relevant. Why are we putting so much energy on the negative stuff when there is so much good out there? Are we writing about the conflicts and controversies so that our readers can spice up their day-to-day life, or because the news stories actually add value to their lives?
And of course, without forgetting the reader’s own responsibility: do they even know what they want or do they simply take what’s given to them without questioning it?
Serving the Common Interest
In addition to not being suited for the environment journalists work in, I had a hard time feeling motivated about what I did. I noticed asking myself almost every day ”why is this an important topic to write about, or is it?” Journalism is supposed to serve the common interest, to act as a watch-dog of politicians and inform citizens about important things. But the stories I was writing – did they belong in any of those categories?
Maybe they did, at least for some people. But for me, they didn’t. It felt as if I was putting my time, energy and brain capacity on something that didn’t add value to my life (because I know so much about different plants, parasites, nuclear power, insects and taxi drivers now than I did before, to name a few). I didn’t feel like I was writing about things that were important.
As I wrote in the beginning, this post has been about how I feel about things and what I think about the way news are written today. There is, of course, a great deal of great journalism out there – and that’s what got me interested in the first place. But that kind of journalism is more investigative and long-term journalism, a form that is struggling to keep its place in the world. With the 24/7 news updates and short, easy-to-read articles, many are opting to skip the longer, more valuable news stories and focus on the short ones instead. And that’s where everyone loses: the journalists, the readers, the society.
I haven’t completely trashed all my thoughts on becoming a journalist. After all, it’s about writing which is my passion. I just don’t want to work for a local daily newspaper.
If I get the opportunity to work on a longer piece that has to do with something positive, inspiring and/or motivating, then yes – I’ll give it a try. But otherwise, I’m fine with what the writing-projects I’m working on now.
Did this blog post raise any thoughts about the subject. If yes – what? Tell them in the comments and we’ll continue the conversation there. Have a nice Thursday!