Can You Recommend Journalism as a Career?

Later this evening, I’m supposed to speak to a class of college students.  My topic is “environmental journalism.”  I suspect one reason I received this invitation is a similar talk I gave to journalism students last year, in which my topic was “how to make money selling out as a journalist.”  What I said then was if you want to make money with a journalism degree, you probably won’t make much as a journalist, but if you put in a few years in the media trenches and then switch to public relations, you’ll get to the big salary quicker than if you start in public relations right out of school.  (This scenario, of course, assumes a college graduate can latch onto an increasingly rare job as a journalist.)

I got out of college and worked as a journalist for four years.  That was long ago and instead of moving on to a higher-paying PR job, I actually took an even lower paying job in public-interest activism.  (Why would anyone accept career advice from me?)

I got into journalism because of bad timing.  I came of age in what I now consider to be The Great American Journalism Anomaly.  It lasted about a decade, between 1965-1975.  Just before this period, White House reporters were smirking and keeping mum about John Kennedy’s none-too-well hidden infidelity.  Then came the Vietnam War and a reporters’ rebellion against the arrogance of those who waged it, civilian and military.  I’m not sure that it was a desperate search for truth that caused the press to report what was really happening on the ground, I think it was the assumption that the “patriotic press” would play along as it always had.  The arrogant way in which the politicians and generals rubbed the press’s nose in it played an outsized role in the backlash.

As the tide turned and the truth emerged on the war, police beat reporters – not the White House press – broke the Watergate story and brought down a president.  Then the anomalous decade ended, the press went back to sleep and off I went to J school, not knowing times had changed.  I got my job in daily journalism, learned that the powers that be tend to control access to the media – and in fact the media itself.

Don’t get me wrong, I got great things from my brief career in journalism.  It made me a quick and decent, if not elegant, writer.  I met any number of dedicated reporters and editors who were in it for the truth, not money or access.  None of them are rich or influential today.  (I have since met and worked with a good many uncorrupted heroes of journalism.  They’re out there; they just don’t run the show.)

Oh yeah, environmental reporting.  I’ll tell the students tonight that I generally avoid environmental reporters, because they tend to be jaded and cynical about environmentalists.  I seek out business reporters, who tend (if they’re honest) to be jaded and cynical about business (and business is at the root of almost every environmental offense.)

Here’s something I’ll show the class.  The non-profit group Media Matters released a report today showing that tee vee news devoted three times as much of their valuable mental real estate to covering Rep. Paul Ryan’s workout regimen as it did to the news that the Arctic icecap shrank to its smallest size ever this year.

Not that Mr. Ryan is not newsworthy.  As vice presidential candidate for the Republican Party and chair of the powerful Committee on the Budget in the House of Representatives, his views on taxes and Medicare deserve all the coverage they get.  His P90X beach body workout routine, however, is not as important as the fact that anthropogenic climate change is threatening both the near and long term future of human society.  Unfortunately, that’s what gets covered by the press.

© Mark Floegel, 2012

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