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Monday, May 6, 2019

What is a real journalist?

The public's perception of how a news reporter works has been warped by television journalism.  Television news stories use video clips of people making statements as the bulk of their news presentations.  A TV reporter, as well as a radio reporter, has the primary objective of getting a statement about some matter on tape for broadcast.  Then, in the name of "balance," they will look for someone with an opposing or alternative viewpoint to make a statement.  In the electronic news business, it is considered great television if they can get a public argument going.  People like to witness conflict.

However, escalating conflict is a television producer's task, not a real journalist's.  The primary job of a reporter is to define and verify facts, not merely repeat what people may speculate or opine about the facts.  The actual news reporter will take care in presenting the facts, distinguishing them from the opinions or speculations they may inspire.  However, in the world of electronic news which thrives on agitating and titillating a public that craves conflict, few facts survive intact the mauling they go through or the jabber they accrue.  The facts often get overshadowed by the chatter.

As news media made increasing use of the internet, news organizations were enamored of the idea of increasing readership by allowing readers to interact with the media with their comments.  Comments affect the readers' responses in many ways, and many studies have examined how that works.  But some very basic facts that newspaper editors  know and work with every day came into play.  A rule of thumb is that the reputation of a newspaper is determined by its lowest common denominator.  What people retain in their memories are the typographical errors, the grammar and spelling errors, and the poorly written stories.  In an edition that might be composed of skillfully written stories, people will regard it on the basis of one story that contains an error or unclear writing.  And people will let a stupid, false, and malicious comment displace the facts in a news story.

The unforgettable sin for a real news medium is to get a fact wrong.  The unpardonable sin is to deliberately misstate a fact.  And when someone is quoted or recorded mistating a fact, the medium has a responsibility to state the fact correctly so that readers, listeners, and viewers know what the verifiable fact is.  That is an essential responsibility of a real news reporter.  The application of that principle is what distinguishes phony news media, such as Fox News, from authentic news media, such as The Wall Street Journal.   A fact is like a granite boulder.  Wind storms may obscure it at times with rain or dust or debris of human-making, but the fact remains to be discerned when the trash storm is over.  The real journalist is like an archaeologist who carefully digs for the facts and brushes away the debris that obscures and distorts them.  And that gets to the real journalist's use of journalism's absolutely essential tool.  That tool is precise but vivid language, language that accurately and sharply portrays the facts. The language used in comments on news stories is seldom precise or vivid.  That's because it does not refer to facts, but is spillage from the minds of the writers. 

Journalism has in the past been regarded as a literary endeavor.  It was rooted in the skillful use of language. The study of language delved into how language is used in trustworthy ways and how language can be used to deceive and manipulate.  The study of advertising revealed how powerfully language could be used to manipulate what people think and what choices they make.  This resulted in some universities moving their mass communications and journalism programs away from the colleges of arts and sciences into the business colleges.  They regarded mass communications more in terms of language as a  profit making device than as the human tool for examining facts and thought.  During my time as a member of the working press and later teaching writing and journalism, there was considerable discussion about whether students were better prepared for journalism by a rigorous liberal arts degree or a journalism school degree.  Editors pointed out that whatever programs the most accomplished journalists graduated from, they were all well read with a strong command of the liberal arts, but the distinguishing factor was their scholarship.  The process of gathering and analyzing information, interviewing people and searching the written record, provides the journalist with the skills needed for the job.  They know how and where to find the facts.

When a news story presentation allows for comments, the chain of responses produces a verbal smoke screen in which the facts are obscured, sometimes totally lost.  Most of the comments do not refer to the facts.  As linguistic scholars explain it, the language of comments gives us  maps of the minds of the commenters.  It deals with the prejudices, obsessions, and deviations of the commenters, seldom with the facts at issue.  For many, those products of cognitive failure are the impression that is retained in their minds.  More often than not, comment threads produce expressions of malice, which reduce the exchange into a malicious exercise.  Students of how mass communication works explain that these exchanges are in large part a cause of the hateful political divide in our nation.

Savvy editors recognize that the good work of industrious, competent reporters is defaced by horribly written and specious commentary.  Major news media edit the comments for intelligible writing and relevance to the topic.  Even so, the quality of news stories is compromised by their association with inferior comments.  Consequently, News editors are often withholding the option to comment on stories they deem of great importance, and invite would-be commenters to write letters-to-the-editor that cite facts and show their reasoning. Those editors  place the integrity of the information and the language above the marketing of their media.  They apply the standards of journalistic integrity to letters submitted to them, and reserve the right to fact-check and edit them to conform to journalistic standards of literacy.

News media and blogs which relax the standards of thought and language for comments help undercut the function they perform in informing the public.  While there is some discussion about whether bloggers or employees of the legacy media are the real journalists, what defines a true journalist is someone who presents the actual, full facts without the compromise of spin and distortion.  Regrettably, there aren't  many readers, listeners, or viewers of the news who discern the facts from the fabrications. So, a true journalist takes care that their own work is not compromised by ignorant or malicious comments.  The ignorant whine that such care is censorship, but the right to free speech also endows the right to maintain honesty and quality.  In a culture in which 60 million people voted for Donald Trump, integrity and quality are not honored.


Porter Lansing said...

Now I understand. The political, tribal divide has roots in letters to the editor and comments made on blogs. It's as if after attending a Broadway show the patrons walked outside onto 45th Street and began performing their own amateurish theatre. And, people who'd just been entertained by world-class, professional artists only remembered the fools in the street.

larry kurtz said...

At a time when gender fluidity is more common than foot fungus fake journalists like Cory Heidelberger and Pat Powers can even call themselves brain surgeons if they want to.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States