Journalists, as unappreciated as the garbage man

Some jobs aren’t fabulous. Many don’t get praise or recognition. Folks who work in these jobs are often given nary a passing thought by most people whose lives would be dramatically different if not for the services these workers provide.

There’s lots of examples. The garbage man (and woman) is one. Honestly, how many people think about the people who collect your trash on a weekly basis — the shit (figuratively and literally) they have to deal with as they weave their mammoth trucks through small neighborhood side streets picking up your untouchables?

Another example might be those who work for your municipality’s sewage and water treatment system or those who work for portable toilet services. That hot dog you ate at the county fair was mighty tasty, but you drop it off at the portable toilet and you’re on your way happily ever after. Tell me, have you ever paused to think what a Porta-John employee’s work day is like, cleaning up after your bodily waste? I doubt most people have.

Unfortunately, journalists get a similar type of treatment. Though journalists are far from ignored — because they’re regular targets of public disdain and contempt — they do live in a world where their jobs are largely underpaid, under-appreciated and under-utilized (especially as traditional, print news-media companies continue to languish in a lack of innovation under the ever-continuing move to online news and entertainment).

Ultimately, public disdain for journalism emanates, I believe, from a collective, public ignorance that neither understands nor really much cares about the types of real, meaningful and important services journalists actually provide their local communities, states and nation.

Such is the case with a recent example from The Charlotte Observer.

Executive Editor Rick Thames explains in a column Friday:

Did you know that when you sign up for e-mail alerts from your local government, your e-mail address becomes a public record?

To be honest, we had not thought about that, either. In fact, this only occurred to our newsroom when the City of Charlotte announced earlier this month that it would ask the N.C. legislature to restrict access to such e-mail lists in its upcoming session.

The city’s lobbyist, Dana Fenton, said the city would propose that the list remain public record, but a record that could only be inspected on site. The city could turn down requests for electronic or paper copies.

This, said Fenton, would make it more difficult for an e-mail spammer to use the addresses.

We’re all for less spam. But we felt a responsibility to at least see this “public record” before legislators moved to restrict access to it. Why?

Thames goes on to say The Observer thought of one good way such a public record of email addresses could be used: “It also occurred to us that many people who signed up were clearly engaged with their communities, given that they were interested in receiving government e-mails. We immediately thought of two ways they could help us in our coverage of their public officials: They could tell us from experience if this government e-mail service was useful. Did it provide the information that they need?”

And, as good business and email practices go, if folks weren’t interested in being a part of their survey and “Carolinas Public Insight Journalism Network,” then The Observer would simply stop emailing them.

But the newspaper’s quest for better connections with their current (and potential) readers and others in the community soon faced a backlash. Some local government contacted their email lists informing them The Observer was requesting their addresses; the City of Charlotte sent such a notice to 20,000 of its email list members.

Soon, the newspaper was contacted by 100 Charlotteans demanding a more thorough explanation of their intentions:

“I still find this an unethical use of the law,” wrote one e-mailer who didn’t want to be contacted.

However, many appeared satisfied once they understood our intentions.

“Based on what you shared there is no need to put my name on the ‘remove’ list,” said another. “I’ll review what you send and take it from there.”

The comments on Thames’ column reveal best the misunderstanding of The Observer‘s intentions:

So how is a blanket email to these listserv folks inviting them to join your Insight group any different than other commercial endeavors using the email addresses? The Observer is a business, just like Banana Republic. Why not add a line asking them to buy your paper while you’re at it?
Just because the Freedom of Information Act gives the Observer access to the list, does not make it ethical to utilize this list for their own use. The FoIA is there for news organizations to gain access to documents for journalism, not for marketing.

I suggest that if the Observer wants to find participants for its “Carolinas Public Insight Journalism Network” that they do so by promoting the program on their website and in their paper. Grow the list organically. Don’t use a government loophole to better your own agenda! It is a desperate move. How the mighty have fallen.
We all know that people pay real money for email distribution lists. Your company basically just found a legal loophole that allows you to harvest thousands of addresses. Who’s kidding who? You;ll do whatever you darn-well please with these addresses. Maybe if your company starts hitting tougher times you’ll decide to leverage this asset by offering access to the list with some of your advertisers.

In any case, this whole thing stinks. Surely you can see how someone might feel that you’re a for-profit company that is hiding behind the letter of the law, “journalism”, and acting in the community’s best interest?
I am appalled at the Observer’s willingness to disrespect the privacy of the subscribers to local government information services, which to me casts an unexpected shadow over the Observer’s journalistic integrity.
I’m one of the folks in question here and I personally don’t appreciate the observer obtaining my email address or sending me any emails for any reason. I hope they close this loophole so people like me who are involved in the community don’t have to worry about being spammed like this. The observer is in business to make money and they requested this info so they can do their job better. I’d rather Halliburton get this info than the Observer.

Halliburton? Really?

There’s a plethora of similar comments to provide as examples and each provide clear evidence of the public’s general lack of knowledge about how newspapers and journalism, in general, work. How The Observer managed to stir up so much scorn for themselves is another story entirely, but it fits squarely in the now purely American tradition of hating the hands that feed you: After all, without journalism and its dedicated, underpaid workers this country and its citizens would likely be a much different place.

How many times have journalists discovered wrong-doing or corruption in government or business? How many times have local and national news companies uncovered previously hidden and secret information that is of genuine public interest and concern? How well does the news-media hold elected and public officials accountable? How many journalists have died in the line of duty, covering wars and battles or government coups and revolutions abroad? The media, my friends, have helped to shape our nation’s democracy and, without them, government would have long ago run amok. Remember “Deep Throat” and President Nixon? Aren’t we glad journalist Bob Woodward had the gumption to delve into that story?

Since I began writing, first as an independent blogger/citizen journalist in Greensboro and then as a paid journalist in Charlotte, I’ve never met a fellow blogger (yes, believe it or not) or journalist who doesn’t take their job as seriously as death, with the utmost regard to high standards of journalistic ethics and integrity. Part of that commitment to ethics and integrity requires keeping a strict, unblurred line between advertising (business) and editorial (service) concerns. If only you could be fly on the wall when my publisher and I have disagreements over conflicts between editorial and advertising concerns; such disagreements, in newspapers across the world, are as sure as the sun’s daily rising. I’d be willing to bet most editors and publishers are like us: when push comes to shove, firmly committed to ensuring conflicts of interest, both personal and business, don’t conflict with editorial coverage. That doesn’t mean mistakes don’t happen; we are, after all, human, and such instances present learning opportunities and challenges to news-media professionals who, by nature, will be forced to change their habits in deference to the common good.

By-and-large, journalists and those who employ them do take their responsibilities to the public very seriously. Obviously, as the comments provided above show, there’s a significant portion of people who, probably through no fault of their own, don’t know that. It’s a shame my current profession and colleagues constantly have a shadow of doubt cast over them, especially in light of the real, public service we provide. I’d hate to imagine an America without it’s press; it’d be an awfully terrible place in which to live.

5 Responses to “Journalists, as unappreciated as the garbage man”
  1. Great article on the under appreciated nature of journalists! Definitely rings home the point of how under valued the profession can be.

    I do wish to point out an issue that I’m seeing with the situation, and that is, People seem to be missing the very massive issues that are leagues and fathoms beyond getting a one time email from The Charlotte Observer about a focus panel, or the possibility that they might get one.

    Chiefly, forget unsolicited and spam marketing, that’s kids stuff!

    Phishing, used to gain access to people’s online accounts through creating realistic and authentic looking emails to incite a person to click a link, typically require a buckshot approach. The process has limited “hits” per “misses,” mainly because it has a lot of barriers to get through before it succeeds in enticing someone to “login” to a fake website. Many of those targeted by phishing attacks are “misses,” realizing immediately the email is illegitimate, or that they don’t have an account at that site, or the message is too vague to cause them to click on the link, etc. etc. Their login information stays safe by luck, not awareness or vigilance.

    In this scenario, however, the same concepts that The Charlotte Observer mentioned, in regards to requesting the email addresses of subscribers in the first place, are similar qualities that would create an excellent opportunity for a phishing attack. Not just an attack, but a landslide victory! I think members of the list, instead of being angry at The Charlotte Observer, should recognize the gravity this has, and be thankful for finding out they were sitting ducks. I just hope that those subscribers get the idea, before someone realizes and takes advantage of the great opportunity this represents.

  2. Matt Comer says:

    Joseph said, “…instead of being angry at The Charlotte Observer, should recognize the gravity this has, and be thankful for finding out they were sitting ducks.”

    Aha! Another public service of The Charlotte Observer, under-appreciated, hated and despised though they may be.

  3. Bambi Weavil says:


    This really is a must read/required reading for not only the general public, for those of us who are in the journalism/publication business as well. The respect I have for Matt as a colleague and a friend, goes without saying, and he truly hit this issue about journalism right on the head.

    In a world where we have to “compete” for coverage as quickly and accurately as possible, yet we all must find ways to work together for us to all make it in journalism, as well as “compete” for advertising dollars, when again it doesn’t have to always be that way – the under-appreciation of journalism on so many levels is fact. There is so much always happening behind the scenes that the public doesn’t realize has to happen for most stories to come across their desk/screens/television. I hope this is the year where more collaboration & (real) community among us in the field will happen that will serve the public in meaningful ways, and I look forward to working with you as always.

    Bambi Weavil
    Founder of Out Impact, Inc. – Making a positive impact in the gay community. Make yours.

  4. Lainey Millen says:

    You go, guy! Sure fully understand your point. As one of your “family” of journalists, I can say that your undying and dedicated pursuit for the “truth” is one to be admired. Glad to be able to count you among my set of professional friends. You are wise well beyond your years.

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