LOS ANGELES - I’m filing this column from the West Coast, to which I drove 412.8 miles — you do things like play with your car’s technology when you’re undertaking that largely uneventful drive there from Phoenix — to hear some people talk about how the public views journalists.
Am I a glutton for punishment, I can hear some readers asking? No. Just part of what should be a continuing trend.
That you are reading a column by a journalist about what we do is too much of a rarity, and that’s mostly our fault as journalists.
Ours is a profession constitutionally designed to be the foremost check on the powerful in our society.
While in the main it does a pretty good job of it, there’s more than enough room for improvement, and journalists should freely own up to that task each day.
Many media people — who demand the fullest disclosure from the people they cover — don’t like to talk in too much detail about how they make the sausage of a daily newspaper or broadcast or website.
This confusion happens when people look at different stories handled differently.
Remember that incident on an East Valley school bus a few years ago where a bus driver and a student engaged in a physical altercation caught on video?
Unlike most stories involving alleged misconduct by juveniles in which the media forbear from identifying them, the girl was named.
Why are Maricopa County Supervisor Fulton Brock’s family’s woes all over the front pages?
Why is local football star Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan given so much
coverage, when so many other young men and women also made the ultimate sacrifice?
And so it’s not been much of surprise to also learn that over the years, talking to people in the East Valley for dozens of stories, I’ve learned that the view most people have about who we are comes mostly from what they see in movies and television.
Which is why I’m in Southern California this weekend. Hollywood doesn’t get it right very much.
I assisted in putting together a panel discussion, inviting the public as well as fellow newspeople, under the auspices of a national organization I’m a member of, the Society of Professional Journalists.
One panelist at Thursday’s event was Joe Saltzman, journalism professor at the University of Southern California and creator of a website called The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture (ijpc.org).
Saltzman has written that one reason for the disconnect between news consumers and the real media, turning people to movie versions, is that chances are that most people don’t run into real journalists.
If a doctor commits malpractice in a TV drama, most of us would probably not stop going to a doctor or trusting one, because we know our own doctor, who’s doing a pretty good job.
But if a journalist is portrayed in a movie — as Saltzman said is the predominant depiction — as part of a yelling mob waving notebooks and microphones at some unsuspecting person, invading her privacy, with no real example to compare that to it doesn’t bode well for that image.
“The image of the anonymous journalist, usually in a movie that’s not about journalism, shows journalists chasing people down the street,” Saltzman told about 60 people Thursday in Santa Monica, Calif.
So if that image is going to be dislodged from millions of brains, journalists should be willing to talk more about how it’s all done, imperfections and all, including those in our profession who do not uphold high ethical standards.
Now, some readers and viewers will never be able to disassociate journalists from that oft-shown pack scene.
That would remain true even if they knew that that’s less than 1 percent of what most journalists do, and it’s usually chasing after an elected public official who is dodging questions about what he is doing with tax dollars.
And I can talk until I’m blue in the face about how journalism aided another of Thursday’s panelists, Jolie Mason, founder of the Los Angeles Radio Reading Service.
Her transmitter was destroyed by fire but was rebuilt by contributions from listeners to Los Angeles news radio station KNX-AM after a 90-second story was broadcast recently.
After repeated unsuccessful phone calls trying to raise the needed $8,000 herself, once the story went on the air, “literally five people called, each offering the $8,000,” Mason said.
All the good journalists do often goes flying out the window with just one prominent ethical breach by just one of us.
Doctors wish they had it so good. But that’s why it’s important to have events like Thursday’s more often, and do other things that help shed light on those who shed light on others.
That’s why you’re reading a column by a journalist about journalism, because today its audience includes not just you, but us.
• Mark Scarp is a contributing columnist who appears every Sunday in the Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org