"What is the purpose of a newspaper?"
It seemed like a very simple question to answer as I prepared for my first day of class along with my fellow students. All of us had been in the profession for at least a couple of years, and the program in advanced photojournalism seemed like it was going to be a cakewalk -- or so we thought.
A student was singled out among the ones with their hands raised. His response was something to the effect that the purpose of a newspaper was to provide a historic recollection of important events within our respective communities, in this case, military bases.
That's when the instructor looked at the young student and simply said, "wrong!"
I must admit the look of shock on the faces of that student and others like him was priceless. Each time we responded with anything that dealt with writing stories or taking pictures and publishing them, the instructor repeatedly kept saying we were wrong.
By now, we were stumped. What had we overlooked? That's when our instructor picked up a copy of a daily newspaper, held it over his head and stated, "the purpose of a newspaper is to make money."
Now things began making sense as he explained that the only way a newspaper stays in business is to sell advertisements or subscriptions to stay in business. No money equals no newspaper.
That's how it's been since the first crude newspapers came off the rudimentary presses over the centuries. Of course, newspapers back then were the only way people could learn about the significant things that directly or indirectly affected their lives until the advent of radio and then television.
Today, many of us can learn what's happening in our world with the click of a button on our computer, tablet or smart phone. At our disposal is a wealth of information that can be very overwhelming at times.
While many of the stories and video clips we get in our news feed comes from established newspapers and television networks, we're seeing a significant increase of sites involving bloggers, many of whom tend to lean heavily on a particular political ideology.
Here's the one thing readers should seriously consider when it comes to these alternative sources of news. To work for a newspaper or television network, you tend to need a college degree in mass communications or journalism just to get into the door. Even then, you usually start off at the bottom end of the totem pole and work your way up through the ranks while learning every facet of effective news gathering and reporting.
That's not always the case with bloggers, who don't need that type of certification. All they need is to set up a web site and start typing away.
Herein lies the problem. There are a number of sites out there that are sensationalizing what's happening around the world and tailoring the stories for a specific political agenda.
It's getting to the point where we've taken "yellow journalism" to a level we couldn't think was possible. Yellow journalism, which can trace its roots to the late 1800s, was a form of reporting that presented little or no legitimate, vetted, well-researched news. Instead, this form of reporting used eye-catching headlines and ran overly sensationalized stories to sell more newspapers.
This form of misleading reporting is widely believed to be one of the many factors that helped push the United States and Spain to war in Cuba and the Philippines.
While yellow journalism faded quickly, we are now seeing it return with blatant, glaring examples out there, especially in grocery store checkout lines.
You know which publications I'm referring to. They're they ones that have headlines in huge, bold fonts stating things like, "Bigfoot weds two-headed Elvis clone" or "Batboy on the loose again."
While we tend to laugh at tabloid journalism like this, we have seen similar instances in which respected media organizations allowed themselves to violate the rules of journalistic integrity and objectivity to sell more publications or air time on their cable news network.
Back in the mid-90s, for example, I distinctly remember Time Magazine's front-page cover that had O.J. Simpson's jail booking photo. The magazine had deliberately modified the photo to the point that it told the readers that he was guilty, even though his trial was still months away.
It's cases like this that required journalism schools to include new rules regarding digital manipulation. It's supposed to prohibit people from doing things to a photo they couldn't do in a traditional darkroom.
Today, it seems we've substituted yellow journalism with two new phrases -- fake news and alternative truth. Following the presidential election in November, claims of fake news went "critical mass" with media outlets and other individuals screaming that this type of misleading news reporting swayed the outcome of that election.
In all matter of fairness, I'd have to point out that news organizations on both ends of the political spectrum could be equally guilty of overly sensationalizing a story or selectively editing what they report. After all, there are some trying to sell air time on their network or sell newspapers or magazines by catering to a specific audience, and the more scandalous the headline, the more likely someone will watch or read the story.
Computer technology is making it even scarier because irresponsible individuals can now digitally manipulate actual video footage and try to push it as legitimate.
I must admit that news organizations here and around the world continue to live in very scary times. All it took was a series of sensationalized stories in the late 1800s to push the United States into the Spanish-American War. What would it take in today's hyper-sensitive, politically divided society for the United States to get into a shooting match with Iran or North Korea or an all-out war with Russia or China?
-- Brian S. Orban