August 6th, 2010 14:55 EST
So you think you're a journalist? Is your story the next Hot Copy?
This is Hot Copy, and I`m Del Marbrook.
Any time you run into an expert who can`t tell you what he knows in plain, understandable language, he`s probably not as expert as he should be. And that includes your professors and instructors.
I didn`t learn that lesson easily or soon enough. I always stood in awe of a bunch of degrees hanging on walls, corner offices with secretaries, lots of titles and people who assured that me that what I wanted to know was so complicated they didn`t know how to convey it in a mere interview.
They either didn`t know or didn`t want me to know. They certainly didn`t want me to know they didn`t know, and they didn`t want me to know they didn`t want me to know. You got that, right?
Don`t trust such people. They`re full of it. It doesn`t matter whether they`ve been elected or appointed. When you really know a subject, know it cold, you can get enough of it across to give other people real insights.
I`ll save for another day any talk about people who hide things behind big talk, or hostile talk, or religious talk. Suffice it to say
for now that phonies abound. It`s our business as well as everybody else`s business. But because everybody else`s business is our business, the point I`d like to make today is that the world is getting too complicated for us generalists.
It used to be that somebody with a good liberal arts education could learn how to be a good journalist with an extra master`s degree or maybe, as in my case, without one. And that`s still true for some kinds of journalism, but it`s not where the cutting edge is. The cutting edge is knowing a lot about certain subjects that shape and reshape the world: nanotechnology, for example. What do you know about the idea that tiny little robots may someday be introduced into the human body to do surgery that now takes large, clumsy human beings to perform? What do you know about nanobots?
Not much? Neither does anybody else. But there is a new nanotechnology center at the State University of New York at Albany, and maybe some of you young journalists should consider studying there so you can report on one of the most exciting scientific developments of the century. I know, I know, more school, more money, more time, but if you do it, you can write your own journalistic ticket.
There are scientists and there are those who write about science well, and increasingly those who write about it well are going to have to be scientists themselves.
Let`s talk about another field. We`re on the brink of fabulous breakthroughs in marine archeology. I don`t mean diving on the Titanic, although that was certainly important. I mean we`re about to discover things, important things, about our past, the past of the human race, because the field of marine archeology is literally and figuratively going deeper.
Let me tell you a little story. The history books in the West have been saying for centuries that the Portuguese invented the caravel, the Model T Ford of the 15th Century. Well, that`s not only not true, but nobody has actually seen the remains of a caravel. We think that Columbus`s Nina and Pinta were caravels, and we have artists` ideas about what they looked like, but we`ve never seen one. We`ve seen the remains of Greek and Roman galleys and Viking ships and Swedish galleons, but we`ve never found the wreckage of a caravel. And you can bet your bippy that we`re going to. Possibly off the coast of Oman where the Portuguese and the Omanis fought a great sea war, which "this may surprise you "the Omanis, who were great sailors, won.
Can you imagine people five hundred years from now "assuming there will be people five hundred years from now "who don`t really know what an airplane looked like? It`s inconceivable. Yet the caravel was the airplane of the 15th Century.
So what about studying marine archeology? Or the wide array of sciences related to it, like radiocarbon technology? In the Black Sea, off the coast of Turkey, off the southwestern coast of Sicily, and in other spots, we`re going to make profound discoveries, and somebody will need to write about them as if he or she understood their significance. The alternative is to have stories " which is usually the case "full of quotes from experts who only talk to the press so they can impress governments and philanthropies to get more money.
Or what about weaponry? Does anybody really understand where the cutting edge is there? Does anybody really understand the breadth and depth of the military-industrial complex and how it has shaped "some would say misshaped "our society? There aren`t enough people in the Fourth Estate who understand weapons science and there aren`t enough people who understand the economy well enough to write intelligently about the military-industrial complex.
I know, some of you will say, But we read about that stuff all the time. And that`s true. But they don`t write knowledgeably. They may write well, even elegantly. They may persuade you they know what they`re writing about. But when you ask yourselves how much you know, really know, about Stars Wars technology or how locked we are as a society into war-making and its importance to our economy, you come up short. You realize you don`t know enough, and neither does anyone else, except of course the people who don`t want us to know very much.
There is a growing list of subjects where extraordinary expertise is needed. Here are some of them:
" alternative energy, such as the conversion of shale or coal
" sports science
" molecular biology
Nor are the sciences and technologies the only fields were special knowledge is needed in journalism. Journalism needs Sinologists,
people who speak Chinese and understand the culture, history and nature of China. Journalism needs Arabists, people who speak Arabic and understand the history and attitudes of the Arabs. For example, when the White House was whipping up sentiment to go to war in Iraq, it was common to hear Iraq being called an ancient country. When you think about it, that`s kind of silly all by itself, because we`re an ancient country too. We didn`t start when the Europeans arrived, and Iraq as recently as two hundred years ago didn`t look remotely as it does today. In fact, its modern borders were drawn up by the French and British after World War One. But there simply weren`t enough editors and reporters who knew this to correct the misconception, so it was repeated over and over again.
It`s not enough for reporters and editors to have special knowledge. They must go back and re-examine old assumptions. For example, one of The Student Operated Press`s contributors, Krzys Wasilewski, who lives in Poland, recently wrote an essay for us in which he said that when Pope Benedict quoted a Byzantine emperor saying something distinctly uncomplimentary about Islam, the Pope`s remarks were taken out of context. The Pope was pointing out that heated remarks on both sides of this divide are characteristic and unhelpful. What Krzys did was to go back to the original speech and examine what the Pope really said. This sort of re-examination needs to be done more often. Don`t accept second-hand reportage, and don`t assume that other reporters got it right.
But remember this. It`s the nature of the business to take things out of context. That`s what happens when you make a decision about what`s important in a development or a speech and you zero in on it. You have already taken it out of context. All you can hope to do at that point is to make sure that it`s accurate, that it enlightens the reader, and that it`s not distorted. But it is already out of its context, and you must remember that. That`s why it`s important to keep going back and re-examining important
stories, and it`s equally important to be knowledgeable about important issues. Otherwise, you`re at the mercy of what people tell you for their own purposes. Otherwise, you`re just a mouthpiece.
You have been listening to Hot Copy, and I`m Del Marbrook. If you`d like to know more about what I think, go to www.djelloulmarbrook.com.