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What does it mean to be a journalist today?

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This photo by David Carson shows a line of protestors facing off with police Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.

DAVID CARSON / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

This photo by David Carson shows a line of protestors facing off with police Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.

It’s fashionable to declare the death of "newspapers." And, by "newspapers" I mean those media operations that bring news of the world and your community to your doorstep and/or to the device screen of your choosing.

The New York Times’ media columnist and hipster prophet, David Carr, recently lamented "the loss of reporting horsepower" that accompanies media transformations — he was writing about the spinoff of newspaper properties by one company and cultural changes at another. And he concluded that we are likely to see print products disappear down the road. Well, yes, but, tell us something we didn’t know.

Sure, it is difficult to be an optimist in this atmosphere of technological upheaval and consumer fragmentation. When we can find large amounts of micro-sliced, unfiltered information on the Internet, what really does journalism offer? And what does it mean to be a journalist anyway?

For one thing, the practice of journalism has become increasingly dangerous. Far too many reporters and photographers have been detained, kidnapped or murdered while seeking truth — and the stories of real people — in the midst of violence in hot spots around the globe.

Yet, we honour and grieve for those fearless correspondents who put themselves in harm’s way. And we applaud when correspondents working, say, for Russia Today come to their senses and quit after it occurs to them the government-run TV operation was more a mouthpiece for President Vladimir Putin than a carrier of truth. That happened twice this year, most recently a month ago when London correspondent Sara Firth couldn’t hack the interference from her Russia Today superiors in connection with reporting on the downing of an Malaysian Airlines jet over Ukraine.

We in the business also honour the day-to-day, shoe-leather journalists in less ferocious settings who travel city streets and sidewalks to share stories that matter to those of us who want to feel connected to our communities.

"Newspapers" don’t often tell their own stories of how and why we do what we do. We just assume that those who read our pages or our online postings value the institution and what it offers — or at least put up with it enough to take away something of interest, even if it’s just something to complain to us about.

Some of this reflection bubbled up this week as I took note of two stories about journalists who were working to capture the truth in the fog of Ferguson, Mo., following the fatal police shooting of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown.

Newspaper photographers often get categorized as another breed. David Carson, a photographer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, certainly seems to fit that bill. And a report about Carson’s harrowing experience covering the Ferguson riots was an eye-opening portrait of fortitude and professionalism. Carson was chased and later attacked, yet he got up and kept on shooting as a looted QuikTrip went up in flames. One might wonder whether Carson’s self-protective gear — a flak jacket and helmet — got in the way of his attackers’ understanding of why he was there, just as the Ferguson police department’s "militarized" outfits ramped up the local fever. Still, it’s tough duty, and readers of the Post-Dispatch were able to see the evidence of what went on.

Another journalist’s story is the troubling case of Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post. Last week in Ferguson, Lowery was working and charging batteries in a McDonald’s, when police ordered him and another reporter to leave. Lowery began shooting video of the encounter and he wound up in jail. We’ve seen and heard much about the Ferguson police — thanks to journalism in action — and it seems clear that training in the First Amendment would also be in order.

 

Steve Paul is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. Readers may send him email at paul@kcstar.com.

— The Kansas City Star

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