Photojournalism is just so much fun it can be a trap. You become reluctant to move outside your role as photojournalist. You are willing to try almost anything to improve your photojournalism. That's the trap. You get better but you don't get different. Try this to move out of circular thinking. This column applies equally to all journalist, so share it with pencil-toting journalists.
The dictionary says: sentient (senshant) adj. 1. capable of feeling or understanding; having a mindfulness of one's existence, sensations, thoughts 2. simple awareness of sensation that does not involve thought or understanding.
How does "sentient" run the gamut from "mindfulness" to "not involve thought"? Maybe people observe others better than themselves. Journalists are no exception. Journalists examine all aspects of the contemporary world and its institutions except one: journalism. The average journalist leaves his/her probing sensibilities in the field. You can become a sentient journalist. Be just as aware of your own organization as you are of those you cover. The changes in the world you chronicle affect you too. The newsroom is an efficient instrument for processing daily events, but it lacks introspection. If you look closely with a fresh view, the real newsroom structure screams at you. One view is an assembly line, many people contributing to a standard product. Another view is the structure of the ancient Roman Army. It knows one command, "Charge!" It's time for sentient thinking on what the newsroom is, and what it can be.
There can be more than one newsroom structure--so pods and USA Today derivatives are not the only alternatives. Pods and cubicles haven't really changed the organizational dynamic of the newsroom. The biggest change in journalism in the 20th century hasn't been subject to the same scrutiny journalism has applied to other events. Ground zero of news initiative walked out of the newsroom. The initiative moved to newsmakers, PR flacks, and spin doctors. This reaction mode is an abandonment of the basic journalism process. Would the American Founding Fathers write a First Amendment today, to protect current journalism? (Stop those satisfying sneers at TV and print tabloids. What have you and your mainstream journalistic organization done today to preserve and maintain the Republic? You didn't get First Amendment protection to accept handouts and photo ops.)
Journalism is not providing a coherent account of public and private happenings that our Founding Fathers expected. Journalists react to a river crossing by building a boat every day, when what we need is a bridge or a sustained, coherent account.
A few sentient journalists have noticed this but they get trampled in the daily rush to journalism. It's systemic, beyond the power of an individual.
Here's this destructive evolution of the newsroom in parable form. Parables let you understand something familiar by putting it in a different context. In our parable, the hunters/gatherers are journalists; planters are PR, spin, police radio, etc.; and news is food. You can guess what "preparation" is. Let's examine previous cultures. Journalism followed human social evolution for the first 300 years of its history, until recent times. Early humans found their food by hunting or gathering. The essence of hunting/gathering is initiative.
Journalists began as hunters/gatherers of news, but they have passed a turning point, away from hunting/gathering. Their efforts have evolved into agriculture. Agriculture is plucking, not searching. Let's compare early journalists with early human hunters. There has never been a way to make gathering efficient, whether it is food or news. It is a search. Some days you find some, other days you don't. A parable: Suppose a group of these early-human hunters/gatherers came upon an agricultural community. This is an amazing discovery to the hunters. "Wow, these people don't have to chase it, they just pluck if off plants. This is much more predictable than hunting."
The planters realized they were at risk from this powerful tribe of hunters/gatherers with their weapons and skills, so they offered to feed the hunters. The hunters figured this was a good deal. They didn't have to hunt and they were fed well. For years, the hunters' fierce reputation sustained the agreement.
In time, the hunters forgot how to hunt. Their sustenance was handed to them. They were no longer awesome to the planters. The balance of power shifted to the planters. Ground zero of the initiative changed. The planters begin to feed the hunters whatever served the selfish purpose of the planters, whether it had sustenance or not. The hunters had to accept whatever they got, because they had forgotten how to hunt and gather.
A few sentient hunters still wanted to hunt but there was little support for hunting. Wise elders argued, "If we go back to hunting, we will anger the planters and they will stop feeding us." So, the former hunters/gatherers busied themselves preparing elaborate displays of whatever they were given. As the food they were getting lost its sustenance, they became better at elaborate displays.
As ancient technology evolved, the planters realized, "We plant it and those former hunters consume it. Let's just eliminate them from the chain and distribute everything ourselves. We'll call this new system the Internet." This led to the extinction of the former hunter/gatherer tribe.
Okay, I strayed from the time context with "Internet," but it brings the point home. Here's a translation for the overly literate. Journalists began by hunting for news. Now, news is handed to them by an industry of news suppliers. If you look closely, suppliers make the rules in political, sports, and celebrity coverage. They make themselves available on their terms. (Refer to parable above.)
If there had been a few sentient hunters/gatherers in those ancient days, the hunting tribe might have foreseen its fate. If you are a sentient journalist, you may be able to help journalism avoid extinction. There is only one natural order of things, journalists must hunt for news and synthesize it into a coherent report. Any other way is a distortion.
Today, the initiative is not with journalists. Very little journalism originates with an authentic observer on the scene. How much true hunting and gathering do you do in a typical day?
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