I spent nearly 30 years of my life dreaming of being a journalist. Within five years of attaining that goal, I walked away from my dream somewhat disillusioned and dismayed.
I tip-toed across to the dark side of PR, as many ex-hacks are wont to do, but soon found that I slept better than I had for years and that my alcohol intake had decreased quite spectacularly.
No longer did I have to do “death-knocks” on the neighbours of an elderly man bludgeoned to death the previous day to ask them how they felt about the gruesome crime that happened to their decades-old friend; no longer did I have to spend all day with an SES crew while they searched for the body of an ultra-light pilot in dense bushland, knowing I couldn’t go back to the office without a photo of his body, and better yet, his name before even his family knew he was dead; no longer did I have to tweak a story to make it more sensational because I was “lucky” enough for it to be chosen to run on the front page of the paper the next day.
Maybe I am just not made of tough enough stuff to have ever have been a hard-hitting journalist or perhaps, as is often the case, sometimes when you achieve your dream it is not quite what you thought it would be at all. Which, I must admit, was a little depressing.
I always wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to help expose the bad guys and dodgy politicians. I wanted to defend democracy and all that shit, but by the time I got into it, newspapers were no longer run by the hard-drinking newsmen of old. No, they were run by bean-counters whose idea of news was about as pronounced as their personalities.
My speciality was social justice journalism, especially refugees and asylum seekers which was a hot-button issue during the supreme reign of President, er sorry, I mean Prime Minister, the Right Honourable John Howard. I interviewed indigenous Australians and tried to fight the good fight on their behalf via the first pages of history. I spoke with people with disabilities, campaigned through the fourth estate for their work spaces to not be shut down. I landed a story (which went national I must say) about dodgy hospital practices which nearly cost a young mother the life of her unborn baby. The editor used to call me a bleeding heart but most of the time they ran my stories – to a degree.
Soon, however, a new system was installed where each and every page was designed before any stories had even been written. There were holes where stories had to fit, around the advertising. Not the other way around. It didn’t matter that I may have interviewed a Sudanese refugee who told me things he had never actually verbalised before. It didn’t matter that the story was worth at least 50 column centimetres. No, the only space available was 10 centimetres and, so, if I wanted the story to see the light of day I had to chop all the life out of it, which broke my heart and probably his as well.
Journalism wasn’t what I envisaged it to be, and six years later, it has not got any better. The scramble for the most astounding story or the first gory photos of a natural disaster or the live vision of a murdered schoolboy finally laid to rest, may seem distasteful but research shows these are the yarns, the pics and the video that rate the highest, sell the most copies of newsprint, and achieve the highest ratings, which no doubt makes the bean-counters very happy indeed.
As newsrooms get smaller, and the race for a scoop more absurd, perhaps the question needs to be asked: when did one of the basic and most important tenets of any democracy, turn into nothing more than a line on a balance sheet? Indeed, why does truth now have to come at a price?
On one of my first days at university in the 1990s, I learned that journalists needed to be truth-tellers, we needed to be ethical, and we needed to be objective. The news cycle has always made some of these attributes easier to attain than others. Indeed, objectivity is something that is almost impossible to achieve when each and every story has to have an angle.
The decades-old debate about whether the media sets the agenda by publishing questionable stories and images or is just feeding an appetite that is already there is again making the news itself. Maybe it’s time to for all of us to consider whether truth is the most important characteristic of quality journalism, instead of a media diet – both here and overseas – filled with salacious and intimate details about people we will never meet.