Save the journalists

I’m a local journalist. Some might consider me a community journalist. The definitions for community journalism vary. According to Jock Lauterer, lecturer in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of “Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local”: “You know community journalism when you see it.” In some ways, this seems like the Holy Grail of definitions to me. You’ll notice community journalism. There is no big picture of a national politician on the front page unless they happened to visit the town. And if a storm hits a foreign country, you’ll only read about it in the local news so long as it has affected the locals in your area in some way.

The difference between local journalism and community journalism is the difference between the macro and micro view. Local journalism covers all things which don’t matter nationally. Community journalism digs even deeper. In many cases, it covers stories that wouldn’t be of interest to another part of the same city.

I’m an editor for a small publisher based in Zurich, Switzerland’s economic capital and the country’s largest city. Among others, we publish four weekly papers in the city – each of them covering a different part of town. For example, the “Züriberg” covers the east of Zurich, whereas the “Zürich West” covers the western districts.

So now you can imagine what I do all day. A lot of people seem to know what a journalist does and more importantly what a journalist should be doing. If you write for a local newspaper, you can’t hide behind your desk. Many people know you and they won’t hesitate to tell you their opinion, whether you care or not. Most people in Western Europe and North America consume media – or at least they read what appears in their Facebook feeds. Revealing my job in social settings seems to evoke an inevitable response. While a part of me feels flattered by it, I also tend to feel defensive. “Oh, you’re a journalist! So much fake news out there these days… It’s important that you stay objective and neutral.” Especially since Donald Trump’s presidency, everyone seems to be qualified to judge the quality of journalism. The conversation evolves into a meandering monologue about what good journalism is and what it isn’t.

To be fair: it’s certainly easier to know what a journalist does than to know what an oncologist does. And you also wouldn’t dare criticize a pilot for her plane-landing skills. If she did a poor job, you probably wouldn’t live to criticize her anyway. But why are so many know-it-alls out there then when it comes to the media?

On the one hand, you don’t need a journalism degree to be a journalist. I’m sure some journalism professors would disagree with me on this point and I wouldn’t blame them. There will always be differing opinions between journalism educators and professionals in this question. In my opinion, a journalist needs training, but a degree is not necessarily mandatory. You can’t call yourself an attorney unless you pass the bar but no regulated license certifies a journalist.

On the other hand, anybody with decent writing skills and an opinion may think: “Oh, I could do this too!”

In community journalism, the critics often live next door. In contrast to the journalist writing about international topics and leaders, the local politicians will call you if they’re unhappy with your coverage. Thus it’s even more important to do your job right. Naturally every journalist should be doing his job right, regardless of what they cover.

It’s no secret that journalism has problems with handling public criticism. But there is another time and place to discuss this matter. Nonetheless, it’s important that people respect our work. Otherwise the constant criticism is slowly weakening the already crumbling reputation of journalism and the media. That would be very bad, particularly in our times of fake news. So, if you wouldn’t dare to criticize oncologists, why then should you criticize journalists?

Many thanks go to Stephanie Turin, Psychologist M.Sc., for her contribution and editing.