What Journalism Has Forgotten

Today’s dispatch comes courtesy of Howe, Indiana. It’s here, in this little patch of America, where we remember what journalism has forgotten.

Most likely, if you’ve ever been to Howe, you didn’t even know it. By that I mean no offense — it’s simply the way it is. Howe has a population of 707 people, according to the 2020 U.S.Census. That’s down from 807 people a decade prior, the last time the counting took place. And that may explain why Howe recently lost its seemingly only claim to fame, as home to the Howe Military Academy, founded in 1884. The academy shuttered in 2019 due to low enrollment. Its final class numbered 80 students.

Howe is a place that may be small in size, yet it’s mighty in spirit. Here, community meeting minutes not only list the names of speakers but the names of each of the attendees, too. Youth activities revolve around Bible studies. Barrel racing and fire department pulled pork dinners are typical calendar event items. There’s even an Indian Summer Day celebration, which seems to commemorate the days when wigwams dotted the landscape — until that fateful day in 1839 when, according to historical documents, the government had them removed.

Still with me? Hang in there. There’s a reason for this.

In this stretch of America, Howe is simply a place to happen upon. There are hundreds of miles of corn fields before it and hundreds of miles of corn fields after it.

And it’s here, in this nondescript area of our country, where you will find a travel plaza named after one of America’s great journalists, celebrated war correspondent Ernie Pyle.

During World War II, Pyle found his stories inside the fox hole. His columns offered a look at the war from the point of view of the soldiers fighting in it. His work stood apart from his contemporaries, who focused on what the leaders were saying and doing.

Pyle’s work appeared in more than 300 newspapers worldwide, and his popularity was credited to his ability to connect with his readers. He earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1944. One year later, he was killed by enemy fire in Okinawa, Japan. He was 44 years old. By then, he was regarded as an American folk hero.

All these years later, from a place that is just down the road from Ernie Pyle’s birthplace — about 70 miles away — we realize that his work focused on the part of the journalistic equation most overlooked today: Bringing comfort to the afflicted.

It’s the other part of the equation, to afflict the comfortable, that gets the lion’s share of media attention today. OK, sometimes it is deserved. Leaders who have lost their way need to be held accountable. But there are many degrees of crimes and many degrees of punishments. Today’s media doesn’t recognize that. No, the standard by which today’s media operates is that anyone who is accused of a crime is very, very guilty. End of story. Period. Somewhere in the accounting of the possible crime the word “alleged” will appear — mostly to calm down legal counsel — and that’s supposed to somehow make it all better for those that turn out to be innocent victims.

Which brings us to the other thing out of whack by today’s news standards: It seems everyone falls into the “comfortable” classification. Therefore, the news media operates under one mode: Attack.

Where are the tales of the average Joe?

Stories of people who run the world may be interesting and, dependent upon the circumstances, necessary. But there’s a limit to their appeal — the situations and demographics are out of sync with the masses — and audience reaction is usually centered around disgust. How much of that can the public stand daily, in an era when such news is delivered multiple ways?

Newsrooms should look at this from the audience’s point of view to gain an understanding of why the public questions the value of news today.

Let’s move back to the other side of the equation: It’s the stories about the people who keep the world running that connect an audience with an act of journalism. These are the kinds of stories that lead people to say, “If that person can survive or achieve that, so can I.”

Has anyone ever said, “This news is too inspiring, too insightful, too interesting. I need to cancel my subscription”?

To find and tell such tales, today’s journalists would have to burst out of their tiny bubbles and get out on the road. Forgo the regular sources and spend time in unlikely places. Ask questions to find out what’s on Americans’ minds and what keeps them up at night — as opposed to what someone’s PR rep is selling as the story of the day. Only then will a generation of journalists discover what journalism means. Only then will journalism begin to resemble the profession Ernie Pyle practiced.

Interesting what you can learn from a travel plaza, isn’t it?

Jaci Clement may be reached via email at jaci@fairmediacouncil.org

PHOTO CREDIT: Adam Bouse on Unsplash

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