A career journalist reflects on his field
These days, the news doesn’t always resemble what old-school journalists would call reporting: the who, what, where, when, why and how.
“Much of what passes for news today is actually people telling us what they think about the news, or worse, how they feel about the news,” said veteran journalist Peter Copeland.
“Journalism is when reporters get out of the office, see things with their own eyes, double-check the facts and then report the findings accurately and fairly.”
That, said Copeland in an interview with the Beacon, is not complicated, but it’s “difficult to do well.”
Copeland, a longtime D.C. resident, spent 40 years in the newspaper business. He worked as a night reporter on the police beat in Chicago, a war correspondent in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, a Washington correspondent and, for 14 years, bureau chief of the Scripps Howard News Service in downtown D.C.
Now a media consultant and author, Copeland, 62, has recently been doing the book-promotion rounds (at Politics and Prose, Busboys and Poets and the National Press Club’s Book Fair). His fifth book, Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter, was published in October.
While Copeland’s memoir details behind-the-scenes experiences reporting on events like Operation Desert Storm and the U.S. invasions of Panama and Somalia, the heart of the book reflects on the core values of journalism.
The importance of accuracy
Accuracy and fairness are essential, Copeland emphasized, and he urges today’s reporters to return to the trade’s foundations.
“Traditional journalism is one of the forces that has kept our country on track and made us the envy of the world,” he said.
“Real journalism is more important than ever because bad actors — whether individuals or governments — now have the ability to spread lies and propaganda directly and without going through the traditional media.
“Good reporters can help curate that information and provide crucial context and fact-checking,” Copeland said.
The core values of journalism, he clarified, are speed, accuracy and fairness. Speed can be a problem in today’s age.
“Speed and accuracy are always in tension — more so now because the pace of news is so fast,” he said.
“Fairness is the toughest value to realize. And while many good journalists are trying their best, there is widespread mistrust of our work on the right and the left.”
A field in crisis
Traditional print newspapers, especially those in smaller communities, are disappearing.
“The revenue that once paid for quality journalism is shifting to other players, especially Google and Facebook. Quality journalism is more valuable than ever, but we need to find a way to pay for it,” Copeland said.
Smaller communities have suffered most from the disappearance of local newspapers, and even at the bigger papers, drastic staff reductions have resulted in large cutbacks in the coverage of local and even state governments.
“Even in our area,” Copeland said, “The Washington Post has made a business decision to focus on national and international news, which means our neighborhood leaders and local governments are not held accountable in the way they were when I moved here in 1989.”
In today’s divided climate, Americans can try to listen to each other, Copeland said.
“I urge people to broaden their news diets, so they don’t see the world from a single point of view,” Copeland said.
“If you are conservative, you should check out The New York Times, even if it is just to see what the ‘enemy’ is thinking. If you are liberal, watch Fox News occasionally. It won’t hurt you — if you are sitting down,” he joked.
Does a golden age beckon?
Despite the decline of print newspapers, Copeland envisions the possibility of a future “golden age” of journalism. This would mean, he said, “a renewed emphasis on old-school journalism values, especially accuracy and fairness, combined with new technology that allows reporters to cover the news from everywhere — and share it instantly.”
Social media, often criticized for spreading “fake news,” can be part of this golden age, Copeland said. “Social media allows everyone to share and critique the news and talk back to reporters, which benefits everyone.”
President Trump has called the media “the enemy of the American people.” How does Copeland, a lifetime journalist, respond to that criticism?
“The real enemy of the people,” Copeland said, “is ignorance and those who would keep them in the dark. When journalists do their job well, they give light so the people can decide what is best for them.”