The Ethos of “Getting
Patrick Lee Plaisance
Editor Jones receives a call from a local resident about something interesting. Jones calls over General Assignment Reporter Smith and assigns her the story. Smith calls the resident, gathers more information, and calls several other people who can speak to the topic. She asks questions. She chats. She plays devil’s advocate. She goes online to search for more details and perspectives on the topic. She drives out to the relevant scene to see it for herself. She may arrange some photos or take some video footage. She takes notes. She returns to talk with Editor Jones about the validity, importance, and focus of the story. Then she sits down at her computer to write. As the story comes together, she may make some more calls to confirm a detail or ask other questions that come to her mind. She sends her story to an editor, who reads it several times and talks to her as he edits. He sends it to a copydesk, where it is given another read and a headline and is placed on a page or posted on a Web site.
This is a generic summary of the news-production process of an archetypal story. But this straightforward account of journalism work is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. In fact, it is fraught with substantive moral, philosophical, and procedural questions at virtually every step. The product called journalism is a complex culmination of newsroom socialization, self-directed enterprise, and negotiated exchanges with superiors, subordinates, sources, and subjects. News is the result of a cascade of individual judgments, professional norms, and claims about duty, means, and consequences. It also represents the exercise of a kind of information-based power. As with almost all forms of power, its use (and occasional abuse) is continually contested. The product of journalism also exists in a particular context of media literacy: degrees of understanding of the nature and purpose of news work vary widely in our society.1