What's happening in journalism today? What's motivating the next crop of reporters and editors who will be covering the news in the years ahead? What factors influence what is reported today?
Guy Reel's day job today is teaching young journalists. Former reporter, editor and columnist at the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Reel is department chair and professor of mass communications at Winthrop University in North Carolina.
In a new Tempo and the Times podcast, Reel spins stories about his days as a journalist and shares his views about the state of the news media today with co-host Scott Ramminger and me.
Today’s newsrooms have been slashed with far fewer reporters and editors in today's digital age than in the past. Jobs are scarce and competition is stiff.
“Now it’s about creating your story and getting it on Twitter, or in some cases Instagram, Facebook as well," Reel says. "It’s more about branding of yourself, and also of your newspaper rather than [focusing on] what does this news story mean and what are these guys up to."
Blurring the Lines
That leads to a loss of objectivity, or at least the appearance of objectivity, Reel says, noting that when reporters from major publications appear on such networks as MSNBC or Fox News, they take on the reputation of those news outlets, leading many viewers to assume that they are of the same political mindset as that news outlet and, thus are not unbiased journalists.
“That alone taints the objectivity, or at least the perceived objectivity of the reporting,” he contends, adding that it raises ethical issues and helps to create the mistrust that many people have today of the news media.
“It does not look good,” he says. “The average viewer is not discerning about what’s editorial and what’s news. And when you blur that line, then people don’t know what to believe.”
Regardless, Reel believes for reporters to get ahead today it is essential for them to brand themselves on social media. “If you have a brand as a journalist, and you’re well known, you get a lot more followers, you get a lot more clicks, and so you’re more prominent in the news world.”
Reel points out that many people today do not want objective coverage and deliberately seek out media outlets whose points of view support their own, a development that he believes has increased polarization in our society today.
Reel acknowledges that politicians today have seen this trend and have leveraged it to their own benefit. “It’s a political stunt or method of getting ahead,” he says. “It’s political grandstanding or a game.”
The 'Nut Graph'
The podcast is filled with anecdotes and stories culled from Reel’s years in journalism. He tells a story about covering a case in Arkansas of a man accused of rape who was released on bond, hogtied in his home and castrated. His testicles were left on the kitchen floor, so the sheriff put them in a jar with formaldihyde and displayed them on his desk, with a warning that “This is what happens to rapists in my county.”
“I remember when I filed my story about the testicles, the editor called me up and said, “Well Reel, you’re missing the nut graph. I don’t know if all our listeners will know what the nut graph is, but they can use their imagination.”
The incident ended up being included in a book by Reel, “Unequal Justice,” which is largely about Bill Clinton, who Reel hastens to say had nothing to do with that crime. But, he explains, Clinton "was connected to the eastern Arkansas judicial system and the sheriff there. He wasn’t implicated in any of that, but he was certainly part of the story.”
Reel discusses the challenge of teaching young would-be journalists in today’s digital environment in which they are accustomed to writing like a Twitter feed, with many not even reading serious news articles themselves. Still, he says, he is encouraged by many of his students who will be the reporters and editors of the future.
“There are some students, our top students, who are serious about journalism,” he adds.
For a fascinating, informative conversation about journalism and the news media today and what may be ahead, take a listen to this conversation with Guy Reel.