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What Journalism Students Can Learn From Shirley Sherrod, JournoList

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I'm constantly reminded, whether it be through the media or through people I know, that newspapers might soon die out -- a daunting statement for any journalism student who will spend over $100,000 on his or her education.

My college courses have been filled with new techniques and technologies that might save the newspaper industry, stressing the need for online advertising revenue and multimedia features. Twitter, audio slideshows and paid online content, it seems, could save newspapers. (The whole conversation, really, has gotten old.) But the business of newspapers, we found out recently, cannot get in the way of the root of the industry itself.

This summer, the conversation shifted from how we can save newspapers to how we can save journalism. In the pursuit of being first to break news or drawing the most website hits, some reporters forgot the very elements that define journalism. Truth is our goal in this profession, confirmed only through fact not hearsay.

In the case of U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod, incomplete facts that spread through throughout the media led to her wrongfully losing her job. After conservative activist Andrew Breitbart released an edited video of Sherrod, a black woman apparently making racist remarks about white farmers, she was forced to resign by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and was denounced by the NAACP. Only when the entire clip was released did people realize her quotes were taken out of context.

For most people, this case is frustrating, as evidenced by the 12-minute diatribe by MSNBC personality, Keith Olbermann. But it should be even more frustrating for self-respecting journalists who dedicate their lives toward truth. From politicians to the media, no one's hands were clean on this incident. Few decided to check the validity of the video until it was too late.

Any current or former journalism student can remember back to his or her intro to reporting course, where fact checking was at the top the professor's priority list. Somewhere in the Sherrod case, or several other stories making headlines on both conservative- and liberal-leaning media outlets, fact checking was pushed aside for timeliness and publicity.

Fortunately, good journalism is still produced every day, as is evidenced by the two recent in-depth series released by the Washington Post and the New York Times. Both series showed incredible dedication and journalistic integrity. The articles were fact-checked, sources were confirmed and bias was absent -- three integral elements of journalism.

The third element listed, bias, has also been the subject of debate in the journalism world this summer. When private e-mail conversations from JournoList -- a liberal-leaning e-mail forum created for political reporters and academics -- were made public, it forced WaPo reporter, Dave Weigel, to resign because of his negative comments about Matt Drudge and Tea Party members. Similarly, CNN senior editor Octavia Nasr, lost her job because of a controversial tweet she sent about the death of a Hezbollah leader: "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah... One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot."

This sparked an online debate on whether a reporter can hold strong political beliefs and still have the ability to report fairly on certain issues. Discussing the role of objectivity, transparency and voice in journalism, Weigel explained through a Poynter Institute live-chat that it is possible. He quoted Slate's Jack Shafer's article and said, "The journalistic method was the thing that was supposed to be objective. Not the journalist, a method that depended on verification of results and findings."

The live-chat was helpful, moving me closer toward understanding this often-gray area of the profession. JournoList's creator, Ezra Klein, also added his two cents about the forum and about his former colleague, defending the list's purpose. Weigel landed on his feet, however, now writing for Slate and contributing to MSNBC talk shows.

To any aspiring reporter, take note of what happened in the world of journalism this summer. As we've seen, even professionals continue to adapt to the industry and learn from the actions of their colleagues. The future of newspapers might be grim, but we must realize that true fact-checked journalism can never die. So when I return to Drake University in the fall, I am sure the names Breitbart and Weigel will be at the heart of our course discussions.