Preview: Sex, Journalism & Trust

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Prudishness and journalism were never a good mix.

Today I started pulling together a bunch of stray threads that have been nagging at me for some time. Anyone who reads my work knows that I have longstanding admiration for quality journalism — and growing frustration with the culture and attitudes of professional journalism.

It occurred to me that a lot of the things that frustrate me about journalistic cynicism, idolatry, and sanctimony are remarkably similar to what frustrates me about sex negativity in American culture.

So I’m writing an essay to connect the dots. There are a lot of dots to connect, it’s going to take me a while. And I’m still thinking it all through.

One think I’ve learned is that my readers can always help me think tough things through. So in that spirit, here are some excerpts from what I’ve drafted so far. Bear in mind that this is JUST a draft, I WILL be refining it. I know it sounds more preachy and strident than I’d like. Also, I need to make it more fun and flow more. All that will be worked on

With that said, here’s the draft…

When people want something badly — in fact, when they need it for their own well-being and the survival of society — and when they perceive it as scarce, they often fear its power. And they often try to manage that fear by shifting the perceived balance of power through regulation, denigration, and taboo.

That’s why so many societies are so uptight and paranoid about sex. It also may be why the culture of professional journalism is so rigid and cynical. Both of these circumstances trouble me, because today they seem to be causing more problems than they solve.

Human beings need sex… We also need to figure out what’s happening around us, and which information and interpretations we can really trust in order to make decisions in our best interests.

…Trouble is, no one is omniscient. Even if we were, our brains could never process all that stuff. We’re constantly trying to strike a balance between gathering and filtering information, so that we can figure out what’s relevant and what (or who) we can trust. …Journalism is about trust, expressed in the language of accuracy, objectivity, and credibility.

…Journalists generally take their obligation to the public trust very personally and seriously. That’s not pure altruism. To be perceived as trustworthy is to be powerful. Journalists know this and like it — a lot. In fact, gaining that power is a key attraction of this profession. (God knows journalists don’t do it for the money or the schedule.)

Where there’s a need, there’s a business. That’s as true of the trust and awareness business (news and journalism) as it is for porn and prostitution.

To help the news business grow, journalism became professionalized — thus positioning itself as even more trustworthy, valuable, and (especially) scarce. There were many benefits of the professionalism of journalism, but there was a dark side, too: Journalists and news organizations started seeing themselves (and acting like) an anointed priesthood, with special authority to declare what was important, relevant, and true.

Meanwhile, mass-media technology provided almost universal access to people’s attention. “News” as we came to know it in the 20th century became ubiquitous and popular.

It turned into a perfect storm of human nature. Humans are social creatures, so we often conflate what’s popular with what’s correct or best. Society played along with the growing visibility of news organizations. We evolved new social norms which equated paying attention to mainstream professional news outlets with intelligence and prosperity. Meanwhile we started belittling other sources of news and interpretation (from conversations to blogs). And we grew a new taboo — making it shameful to admit you don’t care about, don’t trust, or don’t defer to mainstream professional journalism.

When news organizations employing professional journalists are considered the best and only proper source of “real,” trustworthy news, despite the obvious existence and value of many other approaches to sharing information and interpretations — how different is that from declaring the only acceptable form of sex to be heterosexual, monogamous, based on traditional gender roles, and ideally within a legally sanctioned marriage geared toward procreation?

Mom + Dad = baby is neither the pinnacle nor the totality of human sexuality. Likewise, professional journalism from established news “brands” is not necessarily the best or most reliable path to “the truth.” People in communities marginalized by mainstream news have always known this. Now, it’s becoming more evident to the rest of us — especially since we have more ways than ever to check up on mainstream news, and see how that particular type of sausage really gets made

This should be a relief to news organizations and communities. It should free us up to be more creative and collaborative, to abandon outmoded assumptions and practices, to find new and more robust business opportunities, and to represent real life even better through “the news.” But so far, it’s mostly led to a backlash of fearmongering, retrenchment, and cynicism from news pros.

Well, no one cedes power gladly.

Fortunately this time of change doesn’t have to be about “killing journalism,” “destroying trust” or even “ceding power.” Instead, it can be about collaboratively building a fairer and more realistic basis of public trust, focused on managing an information economy of abundance.

The jealous, hierarchical, competitive mentality of scarcity that so far has shaped so much of the culture of professional journalism has outlived its limited usefulness. It’s now making journalists bitter, shrinking the bottom line of the news business, and generally alienating people (especially young people). Throwing off that yoke will not only keep journalism relevant and compelling, but make it FUN.

Yeah, remember fun? Don’t underestimate fun, it’s a whole other kind of power. It comes when you blend passion, connection, and freedom. It makes sex a lot better — and journalism could use a big dose of it too. Once you let go of the need to be perfect, proper, and in control, you can start having real fun. And surprisingly good stuff can result.

OK…. that’s where I’m at with this conceptual wrestling match so far. What do you think? Please comment below.

13 thoughts on Preview: Sex, Journalism & Trust

  1. You’re brave for putting an unfinished article online. That alone seems to make your point about how journalism needs to evolve, much louder than the article itself.

    Not to let the mainstream media off the hook, but what sort of society have we (like you, me, and the millions of people around us) turned into that accepts the anointment of said media priesthood?

  2. Thanks, Jeremy

    Doesn’t feel “brave” to me, but necessary. I think better when I talk things over with people. Yeah, I’m sticking my neck out, but I’m pretty much used to that.

    >what sort of society have we (like you, me, and the millions of people around us) turned into that accepts the anointment of said media priesthood?< Good question! There's an aspect of human nature that craves authority, because it offers at least the illusion of protection -- even though humans have a natural rebellious side too. It's not necessarily "bad" to crave authority or to rebel against it. I think if we all start being honest about it, our relationship to journalism is far more emotional than rational. - Amy Gahran

  3. Amy, this is a solid draft and the ideas make sense to me. Recently, I’ve started to look at my own views in regards to news and the media.

    One thing that resonates with me in your draft is the underlying notion that we should demand content that is true, real, accurate (and applicable).

    Right now, news is entertainment. Entertainment has its place, but, likely news isn’t it. In the same vein, there should be an aspect to journalism that can be applied to our everyday lives — building more clue and awareness about what is impacting us (or, what will).

    I look forward to seeing the final draft. I’m still trying to wrap my dome around the last paragraphs regarding authority, but, perhaps that will make more sense in the final article. Be easy!

  4. Kudos to you for sharing a draft of something – different industry, but even with my closest, most trusted colleagues, I get palpitations about showing work in progress (it’s a mindset I’m working on to try and shift).

    Mom + Dad = baby is neither the pinnacle nor the totality of human sexuality. Likewise, professional journalism from established news “brands” is not necessarily the best or most reliable path to “the truth.” People in communities marginalized by mainstream news have always known this.

    Awesome! 🙂 Maybe that’s one of the benefits of living outside the mainstream – a perspective (born out of necessity) that sees established practices objectively, for their good and bad, rather than simply accepting them without question (because it would be too scary to consider alternatives).

  5. Sex as a metaphor for journalism. The possibilities for comparison are nearly endless, and most of them probably apt. Most disturbing (MA content follows), given media’s need for revenue, is how we will sell ourselves and learn to interact with groups on mySpace et. al. There must be room for a Puritanical reference somewhere …

  6. You have an interesting mind Amy. As I understand it, you’re not proposing that sex is a metaphor for journalism, but rather that there are parallels between the way our society views sex and the way it views journalism– and these parallel ways of thinking have damaged our ability to connect in similar ways. I think it would be good to clarify what aspect of sex you are talking about earlier in the essay. The sentence about “Mom+Dad…” really helped, but in another spot you seemed to be comparing journalism to porn and prostitution. That was confusing, especially since some forms of journalism could be seen as porn and prostitution, and then it’s not a parallel but a description. It seems like your overall message is, “There’s more than one correct way to do this,” whether it’s sex or journalism.

    It might be helpful to consider who gets damaged by this paradigm. Who is hurt by the notion that only heterosexual, procreative sex within marriage is OK? Gay people, unmarried people, childless people, people who are too ashamed to masturbate, anyone who’s a little kinky—maybe everyone gets hurt, by being shamed into thinking that their sexuality is not “right.”

    Who gets hurt by the notion that only trained and experienced journalists can speak the truth? Maybe all of us, because this notion denies us all our individual truths. At the same time, having worked as a daily news reporter, I remember how helpful it was to have the ideals of “objectivity” and “fairness” to guide my investigations and help with the million daily decisions I had to make about who to talk to, how to use their quotes, what information to include. If I was just writing as “Libby” and was not bound to strive towards those ideals, why would or should anyone care what my articles had to say? The public is definitely suspicious of journalists, and wouldn’t they be equally suspicious of a random “Libby” who wants to spout some nonsense?

  7. They might be suspicious … until they wanted to post their own “nonsense.” They would want that nonsense taken seriously which then begs the questions on both topics: Does there have to be an impartial (HA!) God/editor? Is 50 percent + 1 of the public enough to decide? Or, on both topics are we past the point of relevance with the idea of a majority?

    Situational ethics anyone? I think I probably take what I consider to be the working metaphor too far.

  8. Great comments so far folks. I’m working on something else for the next couple of days, but I am reading them and will respond. This is very useful in helping me think this through as I refine this piece.

    – Amy Gahran

  9. When people start asking if i can clarify something I know I’ve stepped too far inside my head and way off track. Let’s see.

    “Mom + Dad = baby is neither the pinnacle nor the totality of human sexuality. Likewise, professional journalism from established news “brands” is not necessarily the best or most reliable path to ‘the truth.’”

    Which gets to Libby’s comment (my notes in ()):

    Who gets hurt by the notion that only trained and experienced journalists can speak the truth (i.e. that mom+dad=baby is the pinnacle)? Maybe all of us, because this notion denies us all our individual truths. At the same time, having worked as a daily news reporter, I remember how helpful it was to have the ideals of “objectivity” and “fairness” to guide my investigations and help with the million daily decisions I had to make about who to talk to, how to use their quotes, what information to include. If I was just writing as “Libby” and was not bound to strive towards those ideals, why would or should anyone care what my articles had to say? The public is definitely suspicious of journalists (authority), and wouldn’t they be equally suspicious of a random “Libby” who wants to spout some nonsense (i.e. have anything other than Mom + Dad = baby relations)?

    I think people will be suspicious, but they will also want to live the lives they want to live and not be suspected of living inappropriately. It feels like this is the point where we introduce an arbiter (leave the sex metaphor for now) because what Libby calls individual truths may also be called opinions.

    You write:

    This should be a relief to news organizations and communities. It should free us up to be more creative and collaborative, to abandon outmoded assumptions and practices, to find new and more robust business opportunities, and to represent real life even better through “the news.”

    So far, and maybe I also saw a similar sentiment on a Poynter link, this has led us to co-opt myspace and the rest as homes for our links at best instead of meeting people “on the street.” Take your sentence … “and to represent real life even better” and strike “through ‘the news.’” Except that we (I anyway) haven’t figured out how to directly monetize myspace, if we’re going to make these improvements we need to get out of the classroom.

    Thanks for humoring me. If it doesn’t for anyone else, it at least helps to clear my head.

  10. Thanks for clarifying, Peter! That’s very helpful.

    You wrote: “When people start asking if i can clarify something I know I’ve stepped too far inside my head and way off track.”

    LOL, been there, dude! In fact, that’s why I decided to post this draft in the first place, so I wasn’t spending too much work packaging it all in my head before people started critiquing it. I think it’ll be a much stronger piece as a result.

    – Amy Gahran

  11. I’m just not really sure why you need to put sex in here at all, unless it’s to get people’s attention. If you’re going to discuss sex in society, you’re going to have to discuss it with more depth. This is mainly an article on journalism, and sex is tossed in without solid connections.

  12. Amanda — I can understand that comment because I did not post the complete draft, just excerpts. In my complete draft, several portions indicated here by “…” do involve a discussion of sex. But that writing is really rough so far (mostly bullets of points I want to make but I haven’t yet decided the best way to connect them in a narrative). I wanted to publish only the more coherent parts of the draft.

    The next draft will include more detail about sex-negative culture, and hopefully it’ll pull together more then.

    – Amy Gahran

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