For Journalists, A Temptation To Become The Story

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Over at HotAir, Noah Rothman asks: “Is the press in Ferguson behaving irresponsibly?”

It’s a fair question. Like Rothman, I’m torn. Media have a responsibility to the public to report things that are happening — whether the police find it helpful, or not. Being kept in a sanitized “veal pen,” cordoned off from the action, is a sure way to avoid breaking any news.

If reporters can’t watch the police, helping the public hold them (and the lawmakers) accountable, then who can?

On the other hand, it is also possible for the press to endanger public safety. Indeed, as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle suggests, by merely observing things, we inevitably disturb them.

Along those lines, it has been suggested that the press has essentially served as a magnet to attract outsiders with bad intentions to the neighborhood. In other words, some of the looters and rioters and professional protestors and anarchists might not even show up were it not for the cameras and attention awaiting them.

Additionally, there is the possibility that reporters might be endanger themselves in the process, or the lives of police officers charged with (among other things) protecting them (and, no doubt, police will be, to some extent, held responsible for failing to preserve their safety).

This inherent tension would be difficult enough, were it not for the potential of bad incentives on the media’s part. In today’s world — where journalists are, themselves, a “brand” commodity — where large Twitter followings amount to status and job security — and where “Gonzo” journalism — injecting yourself into the story — is more common than ever, what could be a better career move than getting arrested?

This is not to diminish the brave journalists who have been killed or harmed in the process of pursuing truly dangerous assignments — and I’m not suggesting this is the case with the reporters and photographers who have been hassled in Ferguson.

But, going forward, if you were an overly-ambitious, and perhaps quixotic, young reporter or blogger, wouldn’t it make sense to intentionally become part of this sort of story — especially if you thought the risk-reward ratio was favorable.

Yes, it would. And the example of Ferguson, so far, does nothing to dispel that. The odds are it would increase your stature, not to mention the number of people following you on Twitter. And — as an added benefit — you get to look like a courageous and bold journalist — a contrast to the stereotype about effete elites and “nattering nabobs of negativism” (why else are we talking about Chris Hayes today?)

This, of course, is not an entirely new phenomenon. There are numerous examples of journalists who have benefited from becoming part of the story. It can be a minor splash (remember when someone from the Martha Coakley campaign pushed John McCormack?)  or a major news event (Glenn Greenwald’s close involvement in the Edward Snowden case, for example.) Either way, it almost always involves raising the stature of the journalist.

If you doubt the potential that future aspiring journos might tempt fate, consider why we choose the professions we do. What is our motivation? I have theories. If you’re naturally attracted to the police force, it may be that you want to help people — or it could be that you like to drive fast and carry a gun. Similarly, if you grew up wanting to be a journalist, it might be that you want to help people — or maybe this was your way to be famous.

Even if a reporter doesn’t seek self aggrandizement or glamorization, there’s still the fact that a really good reporter is hungry for action. In many ways, this is the mark of a professional. A football kicker should dream about the chance to kick the game-winning field goal; a Marine, fresh out of boot camp, probably wants to see some action. Is it crazy to assume that a reporter’s adrenaline gets flowing in such a milieu? This is, as Bill Parcels said, “why you lift all those weights.”

It’s easy to imagine that this cocktail of motivations could lead to something much more dangerous than being pelted by a rock, or detained for a few minutes.

Complicating matters, is  the fact that the journalism profession continues to skew younger, as the lines between opinion journalism and straight reporting are blurred, and, in fact, as it’s increasingly harder (for the police) to even define who qualifies as a journalist (this is both good and bad).

The hand wringing may sound overwrought, but I’m reminded of the story of the blogger who allegedly sneaked into the nursing home to photograph Sen. Thad Cochran’s wife. What were his motivations? As a local media report noted, “Clayton Kelly’s wife, Tara, and his attorney, Kevin Camp, said Kelly was ambitious to make a name for himself as a political blogger…” “Clayton thought this was the big scoop he needed to get his blog off the ground.”

Matt K. Lewis