Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Can Journalists Be Celebrities?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the distinction between television news personalities, and print/internet journalists. I feel pretty strongly that being a TV news anchor, doesn't necessarily make you a journalist. But then what does make someone a journalist?

With the "sudden" departure of liberal commentator Keith Olbermann from MSNBC's program Countdown last week, I think the issue of journalists as television personalities, and ultimately as celebrities has been brought into the spotlight. Olbermann has been in trouble with the network for donating to liberal political campaigns, which would be a big no-no for a journalist because it would be a clear violation of the need to be unbiased. But Olbermann has never been unbiased. He has always made his affiliations clear, so does the fundamental journalistic quality of trying to be fair go out the window? If we don't hold him to journalistic standards, does he then become nothing more than just a television star?

Where do we draw the line between Matt Lauer and Anderson Cooper? Are they both journalists? Are neither of them journalists? How does being on television make someone different from a print journalist? How many print journalists do you know by name? If I had to guess, I'd say not that many. I ask these questions because I think there are important distinctions between journalists that people need to be aware of. But at the same time, I'm not sure that I can quantify what it is that makes or discounts someone from being a journalist. 

When I think about television journalism, I automatically think that Anderson Cooper is more legitimate than your typical nightly news anchor. But is this just a reflection of the way he is displayed on TV? Is he really a journalist in the sense that he develops stories, cultivates sources, does the digging and background research necessary to make a story? Or does he send an intern off to do the real journalism and then just read the cue cards? I certainly don't know how Cooper operates, but I think its important to consider why he seems so much more like a journalist than the people who read the news every night on television. 

Print journalists are rarely as recognizable as television personalities. Does that make print journalism more legitimate? For whatever reason, I feel a bias against people on television. If someone wants to be a television star, I don't consider that the same as wanting to be a journalist. But why can't a journalist also be a television star? What is it about TV that somehow cheapens what may very well be outstanding journalism?

Perhaps it is nothing more than the difference between an editorial and an article. But then why do the people who read the news on television (which would count as articles) not seem like journalists, when someone like Cooper who can easily cross into the realm of editorial seems legitimate? Especially when the Olbermann's of the world, who are clearly editorialists, have so obviously crossed the line between journalist and television talking head. 

I'm not sure. But as I figure out what kind of journalist I want to be, and how I want to direct my career, it is definitely something that I'm thinking about. 

Some background on the Olbermann/MSNBC split:

2 comments:

  1. Hey Erin, nice post. You raise a lot of really good questions, some of which I contemplated too.

    I think most TV news personalities (even some on MSNBC, Fox, etc.) are still well-trained and well-intentioned journalists. So much background information, along with acknowledgment of mitigating facts or other opinions, is lost/cut in conventional TV news presentations because of the limited time frame and fast pace. This inevitably reflects back on the journalist, who may in fact have been diligent in fully reporting a story. We just don't see it in the presentation. Print journalism doesn't face the same problem, or at least not to the same extent.

    As far as the celebrity vs. journalist discussion...we're accustomed to thinking of celebrities as self-serving and self-promoting individuals (not that this necessarily makes them bad people) whereas I think most news consumers still hold to the notion that a journalist's job is to serve the public/common good. AC does a better job of portraying the latter compared to most news anchors. For my money, the stodgy Jim Lehrer and PBS still do it best.

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  2. You make a really great point Tim. Its true that with television journalism there is a lot of material that doesn't make it into the story, which may or may not really change the feel of the piece. I hadn't really thought about how that would reflect on the journalist.

    I agree with you about needing to feel like journalists serve the common good. For that, it really is hard to beat PBS.

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