Journalism Remains a Noble Endeavor

June 1, 2016

SEJ President’s Report

By JEFF BURNSIDE

Buyouts. Salary cuts. Staff layoffs. Dropping readership, viewership and listenership. Ugly online comments. Corporate consolidation. It’s not easy being a reporter — environmental or otherwise — these days.

But the one thing that the chaos in the news business cannot take away from journalists is the fact that our chosen mission remains a noble endeavor.

All the idealism that got us inspired to become news reporters in various forms is still there: Giving a voice to the voiceless, holding the powerful accountable, exposing wrongdoing, helping people in need. It may be more difficult now. But it’s all still there.

It’s times like these that journalists yearn for the days when parent corporations shared our noble vision of public service. Some still do. But, for the most part, ownership groups seem to care more about shareholders’ short-term gains than the citizens’ long-term benefits. Those of us on the front lines still believe that providing a long-term public service is also a profitable business model.

Thank goodness there are legions of fine institutions and talented people working on new forms of the business model that place integrity and service front and center. Those of us in the trenches thank them and urge them to keep going.

The entries in the Societyof Environmental Journalists’ awards underscore the really great work that continues, especially in the area of energy and the environment, on topics posing profound issues for our towns and our planet.

Integrity remains central to our value. And no amount of tumult can take that away from us.

All this change in the news business comes at a time when the concept of the mission-driven corporation is rapidly expanding in the non-news world. Corporate branding guru Simon Mainwaring of We First urges his clients to adopt this strategy for success: “Be a mission with a company, not a company with a mission.”

In my hometown of Seattle, we see it in companies like REI and Starbucks. There’s an anecdote told to me by a Starbucks executive about CEO Howard Schultz. During the recession, one of his top investors called to say it’s time to get rid of perks like health care for part-time employees or charitable giving. Schultz, the story goes, told the investor that he will not change his corporate culture and that, in fact, the investor may be investing in the wrong company.

All this was brought home to me the other day by a thank-you note for an investigation I had done decades ago exposing a dangerous religious cult in Spokane, Wash. During the investigation, the cult leader and a couple of his cronies pistol-whipped my face and head into a bloody broken mess with what turned out to be a loaded gun.

The note was from a woman who, as a teenager, had seen her parents returned to her from the cult. She praised the role of reporters in society. “We are lucky to have journalists…out there working towards the rights and safety of others,” she wrote. “I wish there were more of you.” Humbling. Fortunately, I was able to tell her there are many good journalists out there working hard every day.

Critics of our work — social media calls them “haters” — are plentiful these days, thanks, in part, to the ease with which the Internet creates a platform for anyone regardless of the merits of their concerns or whether the posts have been truly thought through. This culture of umbrage overshadows those who still appreciate dedicated journalists.

So, as they say, “don’t let the bastards get you down.” Remember, we won’t always hear from the legions of people out there who appreciate what we do.

Our reward comes in those quiet moments of reflection when we see our work go public and watch as it positively contributes to the dialogues taking place in our communities, across America and, indeed, around the world.

Jeff Burnside, most recently a senior investigative reporter with KOMO television in Seattle, has been awarded several working fellowships and is the recipient of more than 20 journalism awards. He has served on the SEJ board for eight years.

 


* From the quarterly news magazine SEJournal, Summer 2016. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.