This has not been the greatest summer for journalism.
First college reporter extraordinaire Liane Membis was fired from her Wall Street Journal internship for inventing quotes. Then an NPR intern was caught writing about a Taliban execution that he didn’t actually witness. And now name-brand New Yorker journalist Jonah Lehrer has quit his post after getting caught self-plagiarizing and fabricating quotes.
Again, this has not been the greatest summer for journalism.
While this cannot possibly be the first time any journalist has committed these offenses, the case of guilty-as-charged Lehrer has confirmed one thing about today’s media industry: While you can still thrive, achieving stardom is now harder than ever and involves going above and beyond past demands placed on journalists.
Why’s that? Just think of how much technology has changed the field.
We now live in a time where more people than ever can access the same information online or away from their computers on a mobile. News now travels the world faster than it did in the past, and as a result it’s also very quickly replaced by the next event that comes along. Information appears quickly, fades quickly, but also accesses the largest audience it ever could before disappearing. Because of all that, more and more people, as you have heard, can and have taken to the net to report on the latest local, national, and international events of importance, adding in their own point of view to make the material their own.
Nowadays, just reporting the news isn’t enough. You’re expected to go beyond that if you want to distinguish yourself in a field of people who not only want to write, but have access to much of the same information you do. While it does help if you exceed them as a writer or if you have more actual sources to go off of, you’re still going to have to strive harder in a pool of ambitious people who possess more information on average than ever before.
And that’s just if you want to be very good. If you want to be a name brand or achieve some other equivalent level of stardom, you better start doing one of two things: Either present a relatively unique, never-been-explored perspective on your stories, or start becoming an idea man.
A lot of the time, you’re going to have to do both, which is exactly what Jonah Lehrer was striving to for.
There’s a recent Slate article by Josh Levin that faintly alludes to this demand. Levin has branded Lehrer as an idea man, one whose career is no longer that of a writer, but of a man whose very livelihood depends on how quickly he can come up with well-thought up societal commentaries. This has actually proven to be very accurate, as Lehrer’s fame resulted, for the most part, from his opinion posts and books. They’re what supposedly made him unique, distinguishable to media consumers everywhere.
Distinguishable in an increasingly competitive field. While becoming an idea man (or woman, if you prefer) has always allowed a writer or reporter to achieve greater fame and prestige than their peers, nowadays it’s almost a necessity.
And that necessity itself stacks on the pressure, especially if you can’t churn content out as often as you would like. Given the intense pressure that comes with the expectation to constantly produce the unique and new, it wouldn’t be surprising if more and more writers started taking desperate measures.
I do think Levin really hit the nail on the head with this one. It’s not hard to imagine that given all the expectations upon him and the demand to constantly search for new and improved ideas, Jonah Lehrer got desperate. If he didn’t keep up with it all, there was a good chance that Lehrer wouldn’t have been as acclaimed as he was prior to Michael Moynihan’s discovery that he had fabricated some Bob Dylan quotes, and the discovery that he had been re-posting previous material.
Lehrer understood that the reporter’s game had changed, and that the faster-than-ever flow of information and ideas meant that every journalist constantly needs to redefine and redesign themselves to match the need.
And to be honest, that’s actually kind of scary. It’s scary how what was once an industry based on slower-paced news reporting and column writing has now given way to a race to think of never-before read or seen things. It’s also scary to think about how one day when I’m out of UChicago, I’ll be thrust into all this.
Guess there’s no point worrying now, but perhaps I should start thinking things up. Might just help in the future.