Most of what I did this summer is confidential, that is, at least until the time the shows I worked on actually hit the air. Still, while working at CBS News’ “60 Minutes” I did engage in some interesting discussions about ethics and practice.
Aptly, I was following HBO’s The Newsroom during my internship. A major subject of discussion in the fictional newsroom, as well as in the CBS newsroom, was the balance between ratings and the actual news. Aaron Sorkin’s heavy-handed dialogue was never used in my experience, but greater emphasis was given to a journalist’s ultimate devotion to the truth. Ratings are always tricky because most news agencies want to make a sizeable profit. My boss recommended I watch Network, a 1976 satirical film about a television network that goes to extraordinary and questionable lengths to improve its ratings. Funnily enough, The Newsroom seemed to draw a lot of inspiration from this movie. At any rate, CBS was neither situated in the moralizing universe of Newsroom, nor the psychotic absurdity of Network. It balanced quality journalism with an open debate about the value of ratings while focusing on the truth.
Towards the end of my internship, my boss gave me a copy of Jack Hitt’s book, Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character. In it, Hitt contends that the “cult of the amateur is the soul of America,” where the biggest innovations were made through home tinkering, beginning with Ben Franklin and most recently, even Steve Jobs.
While reading this, I thought of the democratization of knowledge, through social media. Twitter, Youtube and the blogosphere have essentially made all of us part of the mainstream media. A protestor in Tahrir Square can upload a video on Youtube, and news channels can immediately utilize them for the rest of the world’s benefit, accrediting Youtube of course. New media has become an extension of this American trend. The amateur—the average man—can be a source for the next big news.
Working in a news agency, and more specifically on a long form news program that requires in-depth research for every episode could have been a boring affair. I learned that the best “60 Minutes” story is about relatable, sympathetic characters. We had to first find a character and then develop the issue around him or her. Looking at personalities was infinitely more interesting than reading through data and statistics, although I had to do that as well. There is a human element to journalism as well and it took me this summer to rediscover it.