Forty years ago this week, on a cold day in Chicago, I ran toward a roaring, deadly fire that tore through an apartment building, covering my first big news story and starting a journalism career that would take me around the world.
As a 22-year-old just out of college, I was overwhelmed by the heat of the crackling fire, the bitter smell of smoke, and the screams of little children when they were dropped from the burning building’s upper floors into the waiting arms of rescuers on the snowy ground.
An experienced colleague from the office coached me over the phone about the information I needed from the fire, and how to get it. My first question as a professional reporter – it makes me cringe to remember – was to a weathered, older firefighter I thought was the chief, but who turned out to be the chaplain.
With help from patient editors, I eventually put together the basic facts, even interviewing a young house painter who had caught a baby dropped from a high window. A few hours later, I heard the story – my story – come across the air from an all-news radio station, and I was thrilled. I knew then that journalism was my calling.
In my new book, Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter, I show how it felt to cover wars, coups, earthquakes, elections, and revolutions from 30 countries, and how I came to run the Washington bureau of a venerable news company. Forty years and thousands of stories after that first fire in Chicago, much has changed about covering the news, except for the most important thing.
Obviously, the technology has changed from manual typewriters, pay phones and printed newspapers. The speed and volume of news have increased beyond what seemed possible when I started in 1980. It was during my lifetime that the TV networks shocked everybody when they doubled the length of the nightly national news—from a mere fifteen minutes a day to thirty minutes. Few imagined TV news around the clock, or entire networks presenting current events, or that a “public service” like news would be so profitable.
The tone of television news changed, too, from traditional broadcasters playing it straight to more “personality” and then outright opinion, partisanship, and shouting matches.
The reporters covering the news changed, too. Enrollment at journalism schools flipped from mostly male students to mostly female. A few (but not enough) women, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans became leaders in mostly white, male, straight newsrooms. The modest demographic changes were part of a healthy redefinition of which stories should be covered, how they could be told, and who should tell them.
Then the internet blew up everything. The power of a few people (including me) to set the news agenda was shattered. The old editors no longer could decide who was a journalist, what was a story, or what was fair commentary. Politicians and businesses could speak directly to news consumers without going through journalists as gatekeepers. Citizens could talk back to the media and to each other. Enabled and emboldened by anonymity online, the tone of political discourse grew more vicious.
The information network was always “on,” meaning there was no more news cycle with deadlines and built-in pauses, just round-the-clock, unfiltered information. The faster pace and increased competition reduced the time to check facts and frame stories, and the news of the moment could be triggered by a random, ten-second video from somebody’s cell phone.
More information did not always mean more wisdom. My generation was taught not to believe everything we read. My children had to be skeptical of unlimited sources of information. Even photos and videos—once the definition of unfiltered truth—could be misleading or lies.
It was as if a tornado had hit the Library of Congress, knocking the covers off books and scattering the pages. There was more stuff but less sense.
An unintended consequence of the new technologies was the collapse of the business model that supported traditional news organizations, especially local newspapers. The loss of revenue threatens newspapers and local television stations and all but the largest online news organizations.
Behind all of these changes, however, the journalism mission has not changed. The basic challenge still is to make sense of reality and to share that reality with others. Getting the facts right and telling the stories quickly, accurately, and fairly, remain the goals. Journalism has never been that complicated; it’s just difficult to do well.
News consumers do not think we are doing the job well enough, however, and complaints about bias are a product of declining trust. Reporters never have been especially popular, and even when I started, polls on trustworthiness ranked us below doctors, police officers, and other professionals. The distrust has grown, and today’s readers have more ways of voicing their complaints. While we consider ourselves part of the solution to the nation’s problems, many readers and viewers see us as part of the problem.
To earn trust, our driving principles should be the same as when I started: speed, accuracy, and fairness. Journalists must be fast because competition makes us better. Accuracy is the minimal requirement for real news. But even if we are fast and accurate, only fairness will earn the long-term confidence of the people who count on us.
There was no golden age of news in the past, however. In many ways, journalism is more professional than ever. When American newspapers were young, they were filled with lies, rumors, fake news, and political manipulation.
It is true that when I started, reporters knew more than they put in the paper, and today people are quick to publish or share more than they really know. Again, this is about values—fairness and accuracy—and not about the internet or the nature of social media. Technology is not to blame when we cheat on our values, but it can be an enabler.
We know the right values—speed, accuracy, and fairness—and we know the difference between real news and fake news. Rapidly improving technology allows us to report and distribute real news instantly from anywhere to everyone. Journalists need to embrace the newest technologies, recommit to our highest values, and develop business models that will pay for quality news coverage.
If we play it right, the combination of new digital tools and universal connectivity—powered by old-school news values—could make this the beginning of a real golden age of journalism.
(Peter Copeland was a foreign correspondent and Washington bureau chief for the E.W. Scripps Company. He is the author of five books, including Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter, from which this column is adapted.)