Short Thoughts: The Age of the Celebrity Journalist

In light of the recent events of NBC anchor Brian Williams, I feel this is something that needs to be talked about. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past month, the long story short is that Williams lied about his helicopter being shot down in the Iraq war which led to people finding lies in his Hurricane Katrina coverage as well. Williams is a famous news anchor, pulling in around ten MILLION views nightly on NBC. NBC has suspended him for six months while they “investigate”. The important question here is “so why’d he lie?” Why would someone who is covering stories of such huge human interest and magnitude feel the need to embellish them? 

I think the answer to that remains in the question of “since when did journalists become celebrities?” Journalists used to be flies on the wall. We observe, we don’t insert personal opinions and we’re always objective in our reporting. You report the news, you don’t make it. If this is true, and if this is what we are taught in journalism school, then why are so many journalists now celebrities?

For starters it has to do with branding. The age of social media has widened the pool of journalism so much that in order to stand out you must brand yourself and market yourself as a package. Now a face must accompany your byline to keep you relevant. The bigger your stories and the more reach they get, the higher your value on social media becomes and we all know by now that social media is what rules journalism. You must have a LinkedIn profile, a Twitter, a Facebook, maybe even an Instagram or a blog. You’re expected to be able to project your content across all of these platforms, yet who will share, retweet, like and comment if they don’t know anything about the person behind the content?

I did a social media experiment of sorts. I posted a photo story that had been published and included a link to the gallery and a preview image and tiny summary. It got a few likes, several shares, and maybe one or two comments. Then I posted a “behind the scenes” of the assignment which included photos of me getting coffee beforehand, a photo of my rainboots (it was raining), a photo of all my camera gear, a few selfies and then one or two actual photos from the assignment I was on.
Can you guess which post got more comments and likes? Totally the behind the scene photos. My guess is that people like to see something “extra”. They are more interested in the person doing the reporting than we previously thought.

A super well written article in Huffington Post by Gabriel Arana, sums this up perfectly:

But the truth is that in the modern media environment, Williams’ livelihood in fact depended on inserting himself into his stories, on “building a personal brand.” Older practitioners may scoff at the very notion that a journalist must also be a marketer, but those of us who work in online media have long ago accepted it as part of the job.

The Internet has been a powerful force for democratization in journalism; blogs and social-media platforms now allow nearly anyone to become a publisher. But this has in turn made news a cheaper commodity and upended the industry’s traditional economic model. Competition for eyeballs — whether online or on cable — is fiercer. In this new environment, journalistic institutions must do more than simply transmit information. This is why outlets like Vox have sprung up to add value by “explaining the news.” Journalists, too, can no longer be mere stenographers. They must cultivate a following on Twitter and Facebook. They have to raise their profile with media appearances and speaking engagements. 

Given this enlightenment, it’s easy to see how a journalist, especially a noted one, could fall under the pressure of embellishment. I’m not justifying or excusing Williams by any means, just simply stating I can see the (stupid) reasoning behind his lies.  Embellishment and lying in journalism simply aren’t worth it. A journalist’s credibility is their most valued asset and without it they are nothing.

Having a lot of followers is great. It helps project your content, builds trust within your community, and allows you to interact with those who may be able to give you tips or sources for future stories. Just don’t let it go to your head.

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