Creating and “The News”

What if the news simply stopped? Was done. Finished.

I’m talking about the news reported by professional journalists, the sort of news that’s produced by organizations that exist for that purpose, the sort that is sometimes scorned as fake. News outlets around the world are shrinking and that has me worried. Because love it or loathe it, we need it, and our youth need us to protect their future freedom to be informed. I wonder whether they know that, whether we’ve taught them that journalists are arguably the gatekeepers of democracy and the informers of social change?

I recently began a Google search with “is journalism…” Through its predictive algorithm,  it was auto-completed with the word “dying.” As disturbing as that is, it wasn’t my question—although it is at the root of what I wanted to know: Is journalism still taught in secondary school? That seems to depend upon where you live but, in many places, the answer is no. I also went looking for high schools that still publish school newspapers and they’re disappearing too. I did discover this blog post by Texas high school journalism teacher, Leland Mallett, who makes an eloquent case for including this subject in schools. The goal of scholastic journalism is not to create journalists, but rather it is to develop capable employees and engaged citizens…. I know they (students) will be more informed, more empathetic, well-rounded, strong communicators and more engaged as a result of their time in this elective course.

There are several reasons for these recent searches, but at heart, it’s my concern about the future of journalism. As a writer of contemporary young adult fiction, I feel a responsibility to be informed so that the fictional world I create reflects reality. Fiction writers of all genres have always drawn from the troubling societal issues of their time for the genesis of their stories, and the range of problems tackled by novelists is impressive. There are stories for youth about pregnancy, addiction, abuse, illness, gang violence, grief, cyber-bullying, discrimination, homelessness… In short, virtually every difficult experience young people may encounter has been tackled by writers of fiction. And yet most of those authors don’t have first-hand experience of the situations faced by their characters. Rather, authors are touched by current reports and are compelled to write about them, to immerse a character—and hopefully the reader—in a struggle that necessitates understanding. Even fantasy works draw from past or current forces shaping this world to create one that strikes a chord of recognition in readers.

While writers of fiction depend on reports of fact, therein lies another problem for all of us; how to distinguish fact from spin? Today’s media landscape is a shifting, slippery creature with Hydra heads of misinformation sprouting daily. Many teachers and parents of youth guide them on ways to be media savvy, but despite available information to help us avoid online predators, there are still victims. Since most youth find their news online, how well are we teaching kids to navigate that realm, not only for personal safety, but also accuracy? Scott Simon, writing for National Public Radio, posted: When a tornado strikes or a bomb goes off, we look for social media messages as soon as they flash, too. Facebook posts and Tweets have become the means by which politicians, celebrities, citizens — and reporters, for that matter — can confirm, deny, pass on stories and register opinion …That’s just how we talk to each other in these times.

But truly good journalism is a craft, not just a blog post. It requires not only seeing something close-up, but also reporting it with perspective. It uses an eye for detail to help illuminate a larger view. And even journalism that conveys an opinion strives to be fair. If school newspapers begin to disappear, I hope there are other ways for students to learn that.

I suspect some young people are savvier than many adults in vetting their sources, but if those trusted sources aren’t supported, will they cease to exist? Will we see our press go with whimper instead of a bang? So far, it looks like journalism will continue to diminish rather than die, as media outlets shrink to adjust to consumer habits. Will they be able to afford the staff to spend months on in-depth investigative reports? I don’t know. Should we look at supporting more publicly funded media? Maybe, provided there is a way to ensure that source will remain independent of whoever currently holds power. I don’t have the answers to these larger questions, but I need to ask them. As a citizen, I look to journalists for answers and hope the profession will be given the respect and protection it deserves. As a fiction writer, I channelled my concerns into a novel about an aspiring teen journalist wrestling with the spread of lies, how the news affects us, and the ethics of journalism. Faster Than Truth tells the story of a passionate kid who makes mistakes, but in writing his story, I was able to clarify many of my own perceptions about “news”. I hope everyone will take this same long look at our collective need to cherish the freedom of the press. Because in the end, it’s also our freedom that’s at stake.


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