Tell us about a teacher who had a real impact on your life, either for the better or the worse. How is your life different today because of him or her?
In tenth grade I had an English teacher who was relentless in her pursuit of making us learn grammar, usage, and the mechanics of our native language. We had to diagram sentences, know the parts of speech, identify figurative language, spell correctly: the quest for perfection was exhausting, and somewhat demoralizing for me — I was a good writer, or so I thought.
The next year I had her for journalism. No escaping it if I wanted to be on the school newspaper, the Nohian. In that class I met a totally different person. This was her passion, the reason for making us sophomoric writers toe the line. Proofreading was her specialty — guess that’s why there were so many red marks on my sophomore English papers — when she had once had a job in advertising. Her job was to check advertising copy for errors, and she once missed the spelling of “aluminum” in a headline of all places. The rest of the copy in the ad was perfect, of course. It made me careful when I was in a similar position to check everything!
She taught the rules of journalism, and accurate reporting: Don’t ever let personal bias come out in a news story; don’t show bias by omission of facts in a story; quote and attribute accurately; opine only on the editorial page; check facts and sources. We learned about misinformation, disinformation, slanted reporting, libel and slander. Today’s journalism — TV, cable, broadcast, print media — hardly resemble the high journalism standards I learned about in high school. Miss Searight lives in me whenever I write, or when I read or listen to news reporting. And I don’t always like what I see and hear.
Watergate looks feeble in comparison to some of the “gates” we’ve seen since: perhaps the worst, in my opinion, being the cover-up of the events in Benghazi nearly two years ago. Yet, two remarkable reporters changed the role of reporting in their relentless pursuit of the facts surrounding the Watergate debacle, for a time anyway. The were aiming at uncovering facts, not using selected facts to support an agenda. Since the triumph of Woodward and Bernstein, journalism has taken a plunge in its credibility, reliability, and as an independent source for holding the government (at all levels), and individuals, accountable for their actions.
As early as 1729, Edmund Burke established the term “fourth estate” for the media — then print only. It is in fact, not in law of course, an important part of democracy, established in the First Amendment to the Constitution which “frees” the press but carries with it a responsibility to be the people’s watchdog.
It goes without saying that the public’s point of view is changed by the way the news is reported. Democracy depends on an informed electorate. When news (in all forms) does not present a true and unbiased account of events, or more recently, when it actually slants the news to sway public opinion or clearly support one side, the fourth estate is nothing more than a money-making, power-hungry machine more anxious to make news or sensationalize events rather than report it.
Even what a news agency decides to cover and not cover, distorts what is important and deprives the public of its right to know and judge for itself. Certainly newspapers in particular have been under pressure in recent years with the rise of cable, news talk radio, and the interest (both websites and blogs), to make ends meet; perhaps this has caused them to report in a way to grab attention or get one up on the competition. They should not relax their standards, though, in pursuit of its important role in democracy or its value to citizens. News programs do the same — in their battle for the highest ratings.
Thank you, Mrs. Searight, for teaching me what true journalism is (and proper grammar, too).