Journalists, especially those covering the White House, have arguably the most important job in a functioning Democracy: holding public officials accountable and making any wrongdoing known. While the job descriptions for journalists may change to adapt to a growing industry, the responsibility to keep the public informed should stay the same.
As Hugh Sidey said, the White House and the presidency remains "the most sought-after, analyzed and scrutinized" political office in the United States. And with this comes a responsibility. While the media types looking for click bait headlines and more traffic may ask a reporter to throw something together that will garner the most clicks, a journalist covering the presidency should strive to uphold the basic tenants of good journalism.
Sidey was the perfect example of what Iowa State University hopes its graduate will go on to do in the journalism industry. At the White House, Sidey covered presidents from Eisenhower all the way to the second Bush, and allowed readers to an up close and personal look — only achievable because Sidey was a great journalist who had incredible access. And while he admitted he might have been too close to some presidents, he was able to do his job objectively. Even though he had a personal relationship with presidents, he covered them in an honest way.
Sidey arguably had one of the most important jobs in journalism — and did it correctly. It is imperative for journalists to continue the legacy of those like Sidey when it comes to covering a president.
Unfortunately, “journalism” is becoming more of a spectacle — some would argue it’s not even journalism, rather entertainment in disguise seeking out ratings. Far too often, “journalism” is filled with tweets and .gifs, and while cute and entertaining, it fails to uphold the basic journalistic standards that we learned in Journalism 101.
I took a political science class at Iowa State last fall. It focused on the intersection of media and politics, and while it was not anywhere near what I expected, our professor really made us think deep about what is happening to the media that we consume. For example, we watched a political satire film from 1992. The film was, as mentioned, satire, but it made me think about the “journalists” who cover the presidential election this year focusing on non-issues about how the candidate looks instead of their actual policy positions. We also dug deep into theories of how the media we consume is focused on ratings more than ever — and this idea reinforces the need for competent journalism at the highest level of government.
Sidey, as mentioned, was often known for his up close and personal reporting with presidents — whether it was his famous interview while JFK was swimming, or his at one point serious interview with President Reagan that turned into a more personal conversation, Sidey proved that it’s important to develop relationships with sources as a journalist. Today, it would be unheard of for a reporter to interview the president in such an intimate and natural environment. Instead, the White House has built up a mega-PR machine that keeps the president and his ideas locked away with his closest advisors, meaning journalists rely on anonymous sources to break stories most of the time. While the president does interviews occasionally, its very uncommon for the president to talk to the media at length or even hold a press conference, and that makes the responsibility of a journalist even greater.
We’ve also seen examples of when journalists have disappointed when it comes to telling the truth — some of those involving the presidency. It’s no surprise that Pew Research over the past few years shows the public trending toward trusting the media less. For example, when Pew first asked if stories are often inaccurate in 1985, just 34 percent said yes. Fast forward to 2011, and the number almost doubled to 66 percent. 77 percent said news organizations favor one side, and 80 percent said powerful people and organizations influence the media.
Why is this important? If this Democracy to continue functioning with an informed citizenry, journalists need to hold our public officials accountable. To often, especially this year, the debate in the presidential election focuses on outrages statements made from one or two candidates, and less on what the candidate is actually proposing. What’s more important? The size of a candidates hands, or how much their plan to create a new government program will cost? You would think the latter, but instead “journalists” are putting together “articles” on the former.
The American people depend on good journalism. While all eyes on are shenanigans in the race to be the leader of the free world, Washington doesn’t stop. It might not be on cable news 24/7, but there is just as much happening in the nation’s capital that needs to be seen. A good journalist at the White House has a unique responsibility and access to bring light to issues. In other words, the journalist acts as the middleman between one of the most powerful individuals in the world and everyday individuals.
Why don’t we return to what was mentioned above: the basic skills we learned in Journalism 101. Why don’t we ask public officials tough questions? Why don’t we develop sources so that we can keep access to those public officials? Why don’t we follow through on Sidey’s idea that a journalist covering the White House can be accurate while building an honest relationship with public officials? Sidey had access a journalist could only dream about because of the fact that public officials knew he could be trusted and that he would tell the story with facts. While that might be hard in 2016, as the White House is selective with whom it grants access, a journalist still has a responsibility to ask those questions.
If we want a well-informed Democracy to continue journalists covering the White House should continue to strive for accuracy while building relationships; they should strive to keep public officials, especially the president accountable; and they should uphold their responsibility to keep the public informed; because after all, the White House is "the most sought-after, analyzed and scrutinized" political office in the free world — and while the industry and world might change, we still need journalism to keep us informed. And that job is, indeed, one of the most important in this Democracy.