In the last few days I reconnected with two former colleagues from my days in TV news—Donna Skelly and Matt Hayes. Both were victims of the Black Friday wipeout at CHCH last December—both have landed on their feet. Matt is still the co-host of the number one morning radio show in Hamilton—Sunni and Hayes on K-Lite; and Donna has just beaten out a crowd to 22 candidates to become the new councillor for Hamilton’s Ward 7.
Talking to them I got to thinking about how significantly news consumption habits have changed. For a generation of young people their news consumption consists of whatever they can glean from the Internet—some of it from reputable sites…some not so much…some absolute rubbish. You look at a story like Toronto Star reporter Martin Regg Cohn’s piece on how Ontario cabinet ministers are assigned whopping fundraising quotas, and how they meet those quotas by essentially prostituting themselves at expensive cocktail receptions attended by people who want something from the government; (my late friend Eric Cunningham used to refer to some of the big lobby firms in Toronto as “executive escort services.”) and you wonder could a story like that happen if the entire news industry consisted of part-time unpaid citizen journalists? I think it possible, but it is more reassuring to have a reporter’s work, especially with a complex story like Cohn’s vetted through a more formal editing system, or at least to have passed through the hands of someone who has had some formal training in journalism. In journalism school there is a lot of discussion about ethics—in the newsroom a lot less—but at least the seed has been planted and having that background hopefully provides a reporter with a touch of restraint.
With so much news coming from so many sources—many of them of the informal variety there are inevitable system breakdowns. Hello magazine—generally a cheery, glossy celebrity magazine, not noted for getting down and dirty; was forced to recant an “exclusive” interview with actor George Clooney they had purchased from a so-called news service. The article turned out to be a complete fabrication. Then or course there is the infamous scandal involving Rolling Stone magazine story depicting sexual assault on the campus of the University of Virginia that turned out to be false. One fears we are going to get more of that. With the shrinkage in news careers available there is a lot of questioning about why we need so many journalism schools. There are probably too many…but the other way of looking at Journalism education is that it provides a skill set that is transferrable into other areas. Being able to write sentences and paragraphs in a 140-character world will be an increasingly valuable skill. Organizing thoughts into some kind of logical progression has application in sales, marketing, public relations and public administration. One could argue that if not as training for a career in journalism, journalism education is needed more than ever. When you see 8 year old kids with their noses buried in I pads, it suggests we probably should start teaching kids something about news in senior public school so they can differentiate between the various sources of news and develop some evaluation criteria that will help them separate truth from fiction.