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I'm an assistant professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, where I teach and research how news sites can better reach their audiences. I received my Ph.D. from the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri where I was one of the founding editors of MyMissourian.com, a citizen journalism site for Columbia, Mo. Before graduate school, I worked as a community newspaper editor in Southern Utah and Southern California.

Seek authenticity in TV, journalism contrived moments

I added the links below a few days ago thinking they might merit a post, but I forgot about them until I sat in on The Bachelor finale with my wife. I also remembered a conversation my wife had with a friend the other night why she studied sociology in college.

My wife and I watch a lot of reality television hoping to find realistic experiences. We’re not living vicariously through the participants, but we are hoping they’ll teach us a little something about what it means to be human. Finding authentic experiences in reality TV, however, especially on contrived dating shows such as The Bachelor, is incredibly rare. The more I watch the more I see supposedly average people doing unconscionable things for their 15 minutes of fame, and then denying that’s what they’re doing.

I’m glad a friend sent me a link to Mike Rowe’s Web site the other day because, first, I realized my wife and I are not alone in seeking true-to-life experiences. Second, I agree that Phil Harris embodied something you don’t generally see on television.

In a beautifully honest and moving tribute to the late captain of the Cornelia MarieRowe, the host of Dirty Jobs, said he’d never met anyone like Harris. Contemplating Harris’ life helped him understand something about the human condition.

I guess it comes down to this. The world is desperate for authenticity. In business and in real life. In work and play. We crave it I think, because it’s in such short supply. Consequently, when we see it, we’ll wait for it. We’ll watch it on TV. We’ll stand in line for a chance to be near it. Fans, fishermen, CEO’s – we know authenticity when we see it, even if we’re not looking for it. And Phil Harris had it in spades.

One of the reasons I’ve been attracted so much to citizen journalism is the crazing for authenticity Rowe mentions. I think journalism has lost its way a bit. I think editors and publishers stopped really listening to their audiences, instead seeing them only as a brainless mob easily satiated by celebrity schlock. Reality TV, honestly, follows the same formula. Most shows do nothing but pander. Survivor’s a great example. I still love the show, but I can’t say it’s the bold experiment it claims to be. Increasingly it borders on gladiatorial combat with a little T & A thrown in.

The Bachelor is almost the worst example, barring crap such as The Moment of Truth, because it wantonly manipulates participants and audience emotions. Tenley seems so innocent, so pure, but how pure could she be if she’s on a reality dating show?

I don’t want to incur the wrath of Tenley’s fans (and I think she’d be a much better bachelorette than Ali) and I don’t want to get sidetracked from the point. We need more authenticity, and I think journalism needs to carry the banner. Offering audience members a way to comment and submit their own stories is a great start, but it needs to go further. Journalists need to start conversations with their audience, as my friend and colleague Doreen Marchionni would say.

Instead of taking the easy titillating route, journalists and TV producers need to understand what allows someone like Harris to resist the allure of Hollywood to remain the character he is. He’s a fisherman pure and simple. The best journalists are the same. No, they’re not fisherman, but they are information providers. They aren’t in it for the money, the fame, the platform. They do it because they want to help us all understand ourselves better. I hope I can teach a little of that to the next generation of journalists at Ohio University.

On a side note, check out Rowe’s site, mikeroweWORKS, and his efforts to ensure hard-working people have honest jobs. I loved reading his offer of assistance to President Obama.

PhotoCredit: BoxerMom65 made and posted images of this awesome shadow box tribute to Captain Phil. I wonder if other media outlets have used her pics. If not, they should have.

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