Commentary

Journalism has to get better

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Farewell Hills — not Burn

The media have a credibility problem, and the reason is simple: There are too many people writing on topics about which they know absolutely nothing. They might as well just be making things up. Actually, they are sort of making things up.

Instead of putting in the hard work to obtain good information, they take tidbits of information, stir in feelings as to what might sound good, and run it all through a media prism that produces strange distortions.

If you are a physician, scientist, engineer, biologist or any sort of professional, you know what I’m talking about. How many times a week do you read something in the popular press and go “well, that’s not quite right,”or worse and too often, “well that’s just plain wrong.”

I know the feeling. Look at the photo above. It was taken last week in the Farewell Hills on the way back from Nikolai to Wasilla along the Iditarod Trail.

This is the place Alaska’s largest newspaper is now calling an “area known as the Farewell Burn” because it cannot let go of the term “Farewell Burn” no matter how misleading. Maybe “Farewell Burn” has become one of those SEO terms that help drive traffic to the newspaper’s website.

Let’s hope so. Then there would be at least some reason for willfully misleading people to believe there is a burned over area left in the Hills, or doubling down on the deception by captioning a photo taken in the Turquoise Lake Burn as the “Farewell Burn.”

If an organization can’t get the simplest of realities right, how can anyone trust it to get the big story correct?

But this isn’t about the Alaska media per se. They are simply symptomatic of a larger problem.  I used to work at the Anchorage newspaper and know the people there are trying hard. The problem is that none of them have actually spent time on the Iditarod Trail.

A few have seen it from checkpoints and the air. A photographer or two has ridden a snowmachine a few miles out of this or that checkpoint. This has provided a very incomplete picture that is treated as a complete picture.

Still, Alaska media have some idea of at least part of the picture. Outside media is clueless. That doesn’t stop them from writing about things. This is a national media description of the Iditarod trail today:

“The warm temperatures and lack of snow this year will significantly affect the first 350 miles or so of the race, particularly through rough patches of terrain such as the notoriously technical stretch known as the Farewell Burn between the Rohn and Nikolai checkpoints. The temperature in Willow on Sunday afternoon hovered around 40 degrees, and the mushers are expected to face rocky and icy trails with little snow for much of the beginning of the race.”

Well, it has been warm. Popular Mechanics magazine got that and the Willow temperature right in bringing readers “Everything You Need to Know About Alaska’s 1,000-Mile Sled Dog Race.”

The rest? Pretty much wrong, wrong and wrong. There is 10 or 15 miles of rough, bare ground in the Turquoise Lake Burn out of Rohn, and the snow on the Yentna River was icy snow, and there is some open water to deal with.

But the race hasn’t been affected because overall the Iditarod Trail this year is actually pretty good, at least by Alaska standards, for most of the first 350 miles

It’s beyond that where things might get tricky.

Fat-tired cyclists in the Iditarod Trail Invitational have pedaled into Ruby to report “hellish tussocks” on a snow-short trail between Ophir and Poorman.

When someone says they had to ride slow so as “not to break the bike,” you gotta wonder what the ride is going to be like for those on dogsleds.

And the Bering Sea coast is almost always wind blown bare. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to click on the website for Federal Aviation Administration webcams at Alaska airports, go to Unalakleet, and click again to see that the everything is brown to the north up into the Shaktoolik Hills and brown to the south back toward the Kaltag Portage.

You don’t have to be the great detective Hercule Poirot to figure things out. It just takes a little reporting. Edward R. Murrow, Ernie Pyle, David Halberstram and the other journalistic greats of old put boots on the ground to get the job done. That remains the best way to get information, but the internet is a powerful tool in the 21st Century.

You can find a lot of intel in the tubes. Most journalists don’t. I’ve sometimes wondered if some know how to spell G-O-O-G-L-E. Hopefully those now being trained in the craft get an introduction to use of the electronic library at our fingertips because if journalism is to survive it needs reporting.

And there aren’t enough journalists doing that now. Many seem too busy rewriting press releases, which is sadly what so much of journalism has become.  And some seem to think if it’s in a press release, by God is has to be true.

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3 replies »

  1. Close down the newsrooms. Tell the reporters and photographers to take their laptops and the rest of their gear and move to someplace interesting. There’s no reason for Boots on the Ground journalism to die.

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