It frustrates me to no end that so many people watch evening cable “news” and equate these political commentary shows to journalism. The lack of understanding of the difference results in an erosion in confidence in journalism.
To combat this lack of understanding, newspapers need to remind their communities how journalism works and its value to their community.
Here are some points to consider sharing with your readers.
Carl Bernstein (of the Bob Woodward & Bernstein reporting team for The Washington Post that dug into the Watergate burglary of the national Democratic Party headquarters, which eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon) refers to journalism as the “best obtainable version of the truth.”
This truth might not be perfect as not all information may be available to a reporter, but it reflects the verifiable facts a reporter has uncovered. Those facts are fleshed out through interviews of participants in the news event, independent witnesses and experts on the subject matter. The original comments can be challenged through interviews with those who may have competing interests with the original subject of the story.
Verification often can be made through the examination of public records, video footage of the event, or documents of private entities provided to the reporter.
It frustrates me to no end that so many people watch evening cable “news” and equate these political commentary shows to journalism.
Journalistic research can lead to a change in the facts presented in an earlier story. Additional information from records or new sources adds nuances to the original story or serves to debunk what was originally presented. This doesn’t mean the original story was shoddy journalism – only that it was what was verifiable at that time.
The moving target of truth supports the marketplace of ideas proposition referenced by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in his dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919). Holmes stated: “[T]the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market …”
Your readers should be willing to challenge your stories if there isn’t verification and challenge the political commentary presented as evening cable TV news shows. Too often, individuals seek the commentary that supports their core belief without question.
In today’s polarized political climate, this creates parallel “truths” about an event. The truth according to Democrats and the truth according to Republicans. We all need to challenge those “truths” by reading the work of journalists.
Journalism requires a commitment to get the story right. This means a reporter who has been given a tip on a story, does his/her research to see if that story can be verified before it is published or posted.
Most editors and reporters have been privy to a story that would have been well read on page one that didn’t run because it couldn’t be verified in a fashion that would allow for publication. Sources were unwilling to speak on the story and records that could corroborate the tip were not available.
Or sources and records failed to support or debunked the tip.
Printing the story without verification would have been sharing gossip, not reporting. Such behavior would ruin the credibility of the newspaper. And credibility is the stock of a newspaper.
If a newspaper has no credibility, there is no incentive for anyone to regularly read that newspaper if its stories cannot be trusted. And readership is the lifeblood of a newspaper.
It’s been well-documented how Russian operatives spread misinformation during the 2016 election. Federal indictments have been issued for the arrest of 13 Russians involved in the effort to influence the presidential election.
Similar attempts to harm the United States’ next election will require a vigilant, trusted press to help Americans sort out the nonsense from “the best obtainable version of the truth.”
To maintain your newspapers’ credibility, share the journalistic process with your readers, particularly on a controversial story. They’ll respect and trust journalism more if they know sources and documents were verified prior to a stories’ publication.
Attribute facts to the source, be it a person or record. A particular story may call for an editor’s column explaining how a story was written and the journalistic efforts and ethics applied to the story.
Separate your newspapers’ practices in your readers’ minds from the political spin prevalent in many “news” shows.