Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Writing is dead: The sad state of journalistic affairs

There was a time that I was getting paid decently for writing. It wasn't enough to survive, but as a budding, young writer, it seemed like a promising endeavor. Unfortunately, the publication where I was earning the bulk of my literary bread went out of business. I searched for other similar sites but found very few pleasing opportunities.

Among sites that offered money for writing (there are plenty of places that will let you "publish" there but pay you nothing and act like they're doing you a favor by giving you a byline) the majority were pay-per-click sites that paid anywhere from .01¢ (yes, you're reading that correctly) all the way up to the handsome sum of a penny per click. Some sites offered up to $30 per article, which, sadly, now seems like a goldmine. Alas, take into account their strenuous standards for articles and the amount of time one must spend on research, and the pay scale is whittled down to about $5 per hour. Worse than that, none of those sites are worth putting on a resume. No one is impressed by them except for maybe other poorly paid online publications of similarly low caliber. Even in that case, they're only impressed that they've found yet another dope they can dupe into giving them nearly free material.

Yes, I realize few people with the ultimate goal of fortune take up the pen, but I still clung to the faith that somewhere out there, someone would be willing to pay a liveable amount for real quality. Yet, as we all know, faith is believing what you know ain't so. I tend to run out of steam when my best efforts don't pay off in some measurable way and when I see people selling their souls for peanuts. Perhaps working for pennies would be worthwhile for the sake of getting my name out there, but as mentioned, it will meet very few worthy eyes.

Let's face it, writing is a dead art and it's never, ever going to be resuscitated. Every idiot with a keyboard thinks she's a writer, and sadly, if you look at the quality of writing out there these days, many are. Their pollution goes beyond simple blogs. I rarely blame anyone for the quality of their blog. It's like a diary that you choose to share. Publish whatever you like, no matter how embarrassingly written. Tragically, so many bloggers like to call themselves journalists; journalists who put about as much time, effort, and research into their work as an 11 year old puts into her diary.

The two most recent and explicit examples of work that wouldn't get past a 5th grade composition teacher are the stories about the "Women are farm animals" bill and the Egyptian necrophilia bill. The "Women are farm animals" bill is the justifiably caustic name often given to Georgia HB 954, a bill that would criminalize abortions beyond 20 weeks. The correlation to farm animals is the result of a speech given by one of its main sponsors, Georgia state Representative Terry England, that likened the sadness of animal stillbirth to that of human pregnancy issues.


To support his claims, England cited no data, no studies, no science. He merely shared his heartbreaking experience of delivering stillborn farm animals, an experience many of the members of the Georgia Legislature have, apparently. He then commented that one of his buddies, with whom he debates about cock fighting, is such an incredible man for promising, "When they quit killin' babies, they can have every chicken I got."

Well, boys, don't want your cocks, pun intended.

England also claimed that the Holy Bible is life's owners manual and cited the book of Jeremiah to "prove" that God knows us even before we're conceived and therefore we have no right to "kill children." So much for separation of church and state, but I digress.

Terry England's words were heinously distasteful, and completely contradictory. If it's "heartbreaking" to watch animals struggle with birthing non-viable offspring, why deny humans the ability to avoid such tragic anomalies? In any case, no one denies that Terry England and his words are offensive and idiotic. However, that does not give a writer license to misinform the public with sensational refuse. 

The actual wording of the provision is as follows, "No abortion is authorized or shall be if the probable gestational age of the unborn child has been determined to be 20 weeks or more unless the pregnancy is diagnosed as medically futile, or in reasonable medical judgment the abortion is necessary."

Yet, the big news vomited across the internet was, "The state of Georgia now forces women to carry stillborn fetuses to term." Pardon me, but isn't death considered "medically futile?" Let's find out. I will now show you the conclusion of about 30 seconds of research that it takes to report the truth, 30 seconds that hundreds of "journalists" couldn't have bothered to take. According to the bill, "medically futile" is defined as, "in reasonable medical judgment, the unborn child has a profound and irremediable congenital or chromosomal anomaly that is incompatible with sustaining life after birth." Death is pretty irremediable and incompatible with sustaining life after birth.

However, the incorrect information went viral. Instead of reading the bill itself, writers found one case of hysteria and duplicated it, using each others' ignorance as sources. It might have been forgivable if this only occurred in random blogs or oddball, niche news sources, but the story made it into national online publications with readership in the millions such as Jezebel, The Huffington Post, and The Washington Post. In other words, folks who definitely should know better.


(Note: the articles that ran on the Huffington Post are no longer available, but references to them via their search can still be found.)


The myth that Egypt had passed a law allowing men to have sex with their deceased wives up to six hours after their deaths spread in much the same way. One misinformed imbecile with no depth of research published it, countless misinformed imbeciles with no depth of research duplicated it. The public ate it up.


These errors are completely irresponsible and unjustifiable, however, most of the time you won't find writers apologizing or correcting themselves, and who could blame them? What writer is going to spend time researching sources, reading bills, and interviewing experts when they're getting paid slave wages to do so and receiving pressure to accomplish the ultimate goal of a news agency, to be the first to air a story, whether or not it's a fairytale?  


It's fair to assert that the purpose of journalism has changed many times throughout history. Its purpose used to be solely to make the royals look like they deserved their occupations. Unfortunately for integrity, at the dawn of journalism, seditious libel cases were frighteningly regular because, as it turns out, reporting the truth about royalty often taints their image. It's understandable to have little journalistic integrity when your neck is literally on the line.

Thankfully, in 1735, the trial of John Peter Zenger ruled that the truth could no longer be considered seditious libel, even if it made the government or the royals look bad. True journalistic integrity was born. It was no longer a crime to report the facts. What seemed like such a luxury to writers then seems to have lost all meaning now. Instead, the purpose of journalism has mutated. The duty of journalists is to spew material at breakneck speeds, or perhaps break wind speeds considering the amount of fecal matter they regularly smear across headlines, regardless of how fallacious that material may be. Whoever breaks wind news first wins, even though we've all lost. 


It's a circle jerk of incompetence. Publishers lose because they pay a penny a word and are lucky to get content that's worth even that. Writers lose because if they invest time and creativity in their writing, they expect compensation, and no one wants to give it to them, so they go unemployed. The public loses because they're constantly fed lazy, low quality, misinformation, the literary equivalent of pink slime.

It's a sad state of journalistic affairs when, if the public wants the truth, we all have to carve out hours of our precious, little, free time every day to become investigative reporters. We certainly can't rely on those that have been entrusted with presenting us information. We've reached a critical point where, even in an age when it couldn't possibly be easier to access accurate information, even professionals won't seek evidence and therefore, the public never knows what's real. As world renown journalist Christopher Hitchens said, "I became a journalist partly so I wouldn't ever have to rely on the press for information." Apparently, we all have to follow in Hitchens' footsteps. 











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