Indiana newspapers must do a better job of explaining how we do our job as journalists.
Prior to a recent Senate committee hearing, I was joking with the chairman about how appreciative I was that he had not declared me an enemy of the people. He smiled, held his thumb and index finger an inch apart and said, “I was getting close.”
The senator sitting next to the chairman jumped in and said, “I know a half dozen newspapers in my area that are publishing fake news.” A little stunned and with the hearing about to start, I didn’t get the chance to ask which newspapers and what fake news had been reported.
While discussing the New Voices legislation with a state representative, he expressed his concern with the bias shown by cable news channels. He then praised Fox News for its objectivity in having conservatives and liberals speak during its coverage. Regardless of your political inclination, most people recognize that MSNBC reflects the views of liberals while Fox reflects the views of conservatives.
The examples are illustrative of the lack of understanding concerning the journalistic standards of Indiana newspapers. Unlike cable news, newspapers have a tradition of separating opinion from reporting. Editorials are found on a clearly marked page for opinion, along with letters to the editor. A reporter’s column is clearly identified so readers know this will reflect the view of the writer.
News stories report information gleaned by a reporter who attends a public meeting or press conference, interviews sources, or found data in public records. Those news stories tell readers the source of information, either through quotation, paraphrasing, or attribution to the record.
The separation of fact and opinion, and attribution of sources, is carried out with a purpose–to build credibility. People make a conscious decision to buy a newspaper. Without any credibility, a newspaper will lose that reader to another source.
I’m not going to claim newspapers are perfect. Publishers, editors, reporters are all creatures of their experiences and it’s impossible to be totally objective. Recognizing this fact, good journalists strive to be fair. They reach out to different points of view to cover a story, so readers can reflect upon the arguments made for or against a proposal and the credibility of those sources cited. That doesn’t mean reporters should ignore facts–votes taken, statements made, public expenditures approved. When officials say one thing, but their actions are contradictory, a journalist reports this information.
With a skeptical public, newspapers need to make the effort to defend its practices. This can be done in different ways:
Strong edits to remove traces of a reporter’s bias, and clearly noting the sources of information for the story.
Why or how a controversial story came to be published can be explained in an editorial or column. This can debunk a feeling that the newspaper has a vendetta against a particular public official or coverage is slanted to favor a particular political position.
A declaration of principles from the publisher or editor provides transparency to the news process, and allows readers to question the newspaper if it appears those principles aren’t being applied.
A profession that constantly pushes for government transparency should be willing to defend its own actions.
An editorial reminding readers of the watchdog role newspapers have historically played in our democracy, and that role’s protection in the Bill of Rights, should be an imperative during a time where our profession is under attack from even the President.
If we don’t educate the public on what real journalism is and its role as a check-and-balance on government, who will?
Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.