How Journalists Fail

by Amanda Stern
Originally Published: 

I’d read plenty about house-training, but nothing seemed to work. Busy was uncomfortable and worried, and after weeks of using the bathtub as her toilet (considerate and smart), I was relieved when she pulled me into one of those tree pits that run like checkboxes down NYC streets, to finally find relief outside. What I didn’t know was that dog urine is toxic to soil and kills flowers and plants, and people don’t take kindly to owners and dogs trampling their leaves in order to kill their soil with toxic dog urine. I discovered both those facts in one go when a man heading into his brownstone paused on his stoop and began to berate me.

“Are you fucking kidding me? Get the hell out of there! You know you can’t be in there. Get your fucking dog out of that tree pit, you piece of shit.” (This was also the moment I learned the name for the checkboxes was “tree pit.”)

People do this all the time: Instead of delivering a message, they pass right over the lesson and go straight to the punishment.

Based on his language, the man believed that the person he was screaming at already knew about toxic dog urine and not going in tree pits, and that I was purposely defying what I knew to be true, like a petulant kid or a rabble rousing teen, but he was wrong. His aggressive approach undermined his message—instead of feeling guilty, I itched to leave a bag of flaming dog poop at his door.

People do this all the time. Instead of delivering a message, they skip a step, pass right over the lesson and go straight to the punishment. They tally all the people they’ve told off or yelled at before and now they’re just mad, as though every new person is the same person, defiantly refusing to learn his or her lesson. But the lesson never gets taught. No one is actually informed of anything. The only message that gets across is rage. The person getting yelled at knows she’s in the wrong, but doesn’t know how or why, and she’s being bullied for not knowing what she doesn’t know.

After the man had been yelling at me for a few minutes, the shock wore off and I realized we weren’t allowed in the tree pit. I looked at him and said,

“Oh, you’re one of those people.”

“Excuse me? Excuuuuse me? One of those people? Who are those people?” He walked toward me, pissed.

“The ones who make the world smaller with their rage instead of bigger with dialogue.”

“Shut the fuck up.”

“Exactly,” I said, and walked away, proud of myself but shaking from post-confrontation shock.

This undigested rage finds its footing everywhere, and while online it most often appears in the comments section, I’ve begun to notice it more and more in the articles themselves. Perhaps it’s always been there, and I’m just late to the game. Instead of informing readers, these writers yell at and patronize them, as though readers should already know information they don’t (which is why they’re actually reading an article—to gather that information). The moralizing is getting louder and harder to ignore.

© Amanda Stern

I get it: It’s frustrating beyond belief that in 2014 we are still fighting for rights that are inherently ours. People fight oppression every day just for being non-white or non-male. Young black men are shot and killed and women are raped, and these reprehensible actions often stem from fear and ignorance. The reason why some people know another way is that they’ve been taught. It’s on those people to educate those who don’t know, regardless of how offensive and distasteful we find it that we exist in a world where people don’t all share views that are so patently right. Once, we didn’t know, and while we may not have been violent in our not-knowing, it remains true that someone else had to teach us right from wrong.

Sanctimony doesn’t inspire change or empower people. It simply creates more hostility. Chastising the reader and littering your journalism with accusatory invective isn’t going to change anything, and it’s also—dare I say it—easy and unsophisticated, serving only to alert the reader to the author’s inability to connect in an authentic way with other people. Hostility creates distance, but when the journalist’s “beat” becomes tone in lieu of topic, readers are left cringing at the writer’s martyrdom, and a bad association is created for the reader—with the writer and the publication for hiring the writer. Journalists have missed so many opportunities to effect change because they’ve chosen to rant instead of educate.

Anger is a non-action. It’s passive, yet damaging, and it’s wily, because hostility takes energy which makes it feel like an action. When I read articles filled with combative language, I feel the writer is sending the problem out into the world, foisting it onto others instead of trying to offer solutions. The writer is adding to the very problem he is angry exists. This type of journalism sets a bad example because it perpetuates the notion that things should not be talked about, explored, discussed, or engaged with, while shaming the reader for not knowing what the journalist knows (yet refuses to impart). These articles are adversarial campaigns in support of undigested rage, and they damage society and add to mental health issues. Getting angry is not hard. Exploring difficult and uncomfortable truths is hard, and we can’t get angry with others for being fearful and lazy when we’re too fearful and lazy to explain where we’re coming from.

Trolling happens when writers looking for a fight use unprocessed invective to express an emotion rather than a thought process. A small, but growing, collection of online journalists falls back on this approach to lessen the burden they feel, but anger can be isolating and its own kind of burden. Who wants to help or join forces with someone always in fight mode? The more you can inform others, the less alone you’ll be. One person protesting on the street is a crazy everyone ignores; lots of people protesting on the street is a rally.

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