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This is Not Journalism!

Instead of the usual topic of conversation, I’d like to veer off the path a bit and discuss the blog itself, and how it relates to journalism.

I was 23-years-old in 1988, and after a few failed attempts at college, relationships, and life in general, I made the wise decision to follow my dad’s advice and joined the Navy. I never considered myself a “military type.” Like many others, I ignorantly assumed people joined the military because they weren’t smart enough to find success in the “real” world. Yet, there I was, tempted by the promise of the Navy’s slogan at the time, “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure!” I had no plans to stay in after my first hitch, and after talking to the recruiter, I decided the only job I would consider was “Navy Journalist.”

The recruiter informed me the job wasn’t available, and I told him if that was the case, I wasn’t interested. I did pretty well on the “Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery” (commonly known as the ASVAB test), and he was really pushing me toward jobs in the Navy’s nuclear program. After a couple of months, I think he realized I wasn’t taking the nuclear bait, and called to inform me billets were available for the Navy Journalist rating (job specialty).

Next thing you know, I was off to basic training, which is a story unto itself. After boot camp, I was sent to Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana to complete the Basic Journalism Course at the Defense Information School (DINFOS). DINFOS was a joint-service school, so my classrooms were filled with new recruits from the Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. Most of us thought of journalism as an exotic and honorable profession, with opportunities for adventure and notoriety simply waiting for us to finish school. We weren’t wrong.

The classwork was intense. I had already spent a few years in and out of universities, and the quality of education was just as high. In retrospect, a few degrees later, I believe DINFOS classes were even more challenging than those I had taken in the civilian world. I still look back fondly on sitting in the hallways of the barracks rooms in the wee hours of the morning with a clunky IBM Selectric typewriter on my lap, clacking away furiously, trying to complete a writing assignment for the following day. I was never alone. There were always a few others doing the same, most of us drinking absurd amounts of coffee, and helping each other when we couldn’t think of just the right word to make our story a masterpiece.

We were idealists, and developed a sense of pride in the quality of our stories, even if it was just about a new gymnasium opening on base, or a change in the operating hours at the installation’s bowling alley. Stories weren’t easy to come by in the confines of our world, but we did the best we could.

One of the most important aspects of our writing was to be “fair and balanced.” This phrase is thrown around a lot these days, and relates to the original topic of my blog.

When we wrote straight new stories, we were trained to never include our own opinions. If we did, it was considered editorializing, and the grade was usually marked down low enough to fail the assignment. Facts were supposed to be corroborated by more than one source. It was okay to include an opinion in the story, but only if it was a quote from someone other than the writer. If the story contained more than one viewpoint, it was generally required to ensure each opinion received equal exposure. In other words … fair and balanced.

There is a place for a writer’s personal opinion, and in newspapers (remember those?), there were normally one or more opinion columns included in each edition. These days, blogs are the world’s opinion columns, and there are plenty of opinions to go around.

What disappoints me, is I can’t remember the last time I read a “straight news story” that wouldn’t have received a failing grade at DINFOS due to editorializing. It’s what makes journalism, journalism, and not a blog post. Even once highly-respected news agencies have abandoned the idea of presenting facts and letting readers make up their own minds, for biased, and often inflammatory, rhetoric.

I’m ashamed of what my chosen career field has become. Anyone with a smart phone and access to a social media platform considers themselves a photojournalist, without a day of training, nor an ounce of journalistic integrity.

I hope you all read today’s “news” stories with a heavy dose of skepticism, and take in more than one viewpoint. Don’t let your favorite news agency control your opinion. Even though it’s satisfying to absorb information which coincides with your personal feelings, sometimes the truth may be a little harder to swallow. The second you start feeling as though you’re being persuaded to think or feel a certain way, make sure you’re getting the whole story.

I miss you Walter Cronkite!

Please let me know how you feel. Is an Orwellian world just down the road? Or are we already there? Don't worry, next blog will be about Thailand!