There is a commandment that everyone who practices journalism and only journalism should start promoting loudly in big, small, traditional, emerging, community and alternative media: “You shall not kill the reporter.”
The following happened a couple years ago. A journalist was offered a promotion to a management position. She would be creating the position from scratch and her duties would include the difficult task of mixing creativity and readership metrics. She asked if, for the sake of creativity, she would be able to continue to practice what is essential for any journalistic soul: reporting. The corporate answer: “No.” The argument: “You need to evolve.”
Should we understand evolution as sacrificing the good reporter for the editor, the investigative journalist for the manager, the dauntless reporter for the newsroom manager, the newshound for the head of audience development?
The journalist had her answer. She turned down the promotion and anchored herself to the craft that walks, investigates and tells stories, and stayed put at first base, doing what she knew how to do: report. From then on, every time she asked for support to avoid drowning in the deep waters of investigating social conflict and developing long-running journalism projects, all she got was a pat on the back. And every time she asked for a salary increase, she was reminded that she had made her choice. “You chose not to kill the reporter,” her bosses insisted.
After hearing about this story, I decided to craft the 10 Commandments of the Journalist, mostly as an exercise to remind ourselves of the parts of the craft that we should never overlook:
- You shall love the Truth above all else.
- You shall not defile the name of Truth or honesty.
- You shall respect all journalistic genres as equal.
- You shall honor ethics.
- You shall not kill the reporter.
- You must not commit acts against journalism.
- You must not steal ideas from your colleagues.
- You must not give false testimony, nor lie.
- You must not allow your sources to manipulate.
- You must not consider leaks an investigation.
Each of these promotes essentially the same thing: the return to the core of journalism. Gay Talese, Ryszard Kapuściński and Oriana Fallaci evolved. They did it in order to strengthen their stories, by perfecting journalism and by walking with others as much as it was necessary, and sometimes even beyond. Their books, “The Silent Season of a Hero,” “The Shadow of the Sun” and “Interview with History” — just to mention a few — are proof of this.
Today, audience loyalty to a media outlet is achieved through the journalistic and service content it is able to produce. As long as the eagerness to try out the latest technology surpasses journalism, we will be condemning media to a legacy of the fireworks created, rather than as the truth that informs history.
The sophistication of technology can’t be above reporting. Of course, the media world requires professionals in different areas, but think about this, my dear reporter: Every time the sirens’ song tells you the only way to raise your salary is by reaching for a management position, leaving behind journalistic work, the investigation, I urge you to remember why you chose this trade in the first place, against all odds and bad omens. Society consumes journalism, but it needs a lot more seasoned reporters; those who are persistent, ready to listen, with a never-ending capacity for wonder, with the dexterity to create pertinent questions, gather facts, discover patterns and develop quality stories.
Some might say that people consume less journalism each day. I’m sure that’s what will be claimed by my colleagues who specialize in metrics, those who measure success by how much dopamine the alienated masses release after following what the algorithm suggests, adding up the number of clicks that come as a result of paid publicity to promote articles on social media. I still believe in journalism as an element to create change through the reporter’s critical thinking and not by a machine. I will keep betting on the return to our core, to journalism as the road to truth. I will continue to further these commandments of journalism, even if the media world insists on having more “click generators” than reporters in their newsrooms.
My dear readers, let’s make an oath in favor of “You shall not kill the reporter.” Which commandments would you swear by?
This article originally appeared in Spanish in Fundaciongabo, website of the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for New Latin American Journalism (FNPI), based in Cartagena, Colombia. It is cross-posted here with permission.
Ginna Morelo is a Colombian reporter. She is currently El Tiempo’s Data Unit Editor and a professor of investigative journalism at Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá. Morelo is also one of the co-founders of Consejo de Redacción, a GIJN member that promotes independent and investigative reporting in Colombia.