Making News Reporting Better

One summer, long ago, I took a journalism class in graduate school called “tabloid journalism.” The main assignment was to write a collection of stories in the tabloid style. All the other students in the class wrote gossip type stories about celebrities as would be found in the National Enquirer. My favorite grocery store checkout magazine, however, was The World Weekly News. This tabloid did contain stories about rich and famous Hollywood stars and politicians, but most feature stories were science related. The National Enquirer, for example, would feature a story about Hillary Clinton having two secret lovers, while the World Weekly News would write about Hillary being impregnated by an alien. The Enquirer, at that time, found sources, or claimed to find sources, to support its allegations, and on rare occasions, it would publish stories that were actually true. The World Weekly News was satire; it twisted the facts slightly to create outrageous, fantastic stories no rational person would believe.

The World Weekly News, in my mind, was a precursor to The Onion, creating fictional news to poke fun at people who take themselves or their theories too seriously. One of the most popular stories of all time in the World Weekly News was an article about Bat Boy, a being that was part human and part bat. For quite some time, you could buy a t-shirt with bat boy’s head on it. Maybe you still can, although you won’t find the magazine at the checkout counter anymore.

Back then, in the early 90s, there was a clear dividing line between what trained journalists did and what writers who worked for the tabloids did. Selling papers was the primary goal of tabloid authors. Make the “news” as sensational as possible. Write headlines that grab people’s attention. Shock people. Make those standing at the checkout line so curious that they had to pick up, skim, and buy the paper to finish reading. Journalists, on the other hand, were trained to write objectively. They wanted to tell the story in a compelling way, but do so accurately. Just the facts and only the facts.

One of my favorite classroom activities involves reading four newspaper accounts of the murder of Malcolm X. The four articles use different adjectives to describe Malcolm X, the shooting, and his assassins. They tell the story quite differently. In one case, Malcolm X is portrayed as a bearded extremist, killed as a consequence of his own radical actions; in another story, Malcolm X is portrayed as a tragic figure whose loss was shocking to the African-American community. The point of the exercise is that there is no objective way to report the facts. Every story reflects a bias. But, nevertheless, there is a difference between writing the story accurately, writing the story humorously, and writing to mislead people. It’s more difficult to tell nowadays which approach is being used because the lines between these three approaches have been blurred.

There are at least two reasons why its more challenging to distinguish a story written by journalists from stories written by humorists and propagandists. First, during the past 25 years, a thing you may have heard of, called the Internet, modified how we access and interpret information. The Internet has become increasingly commercialized, so it has become increasingly oriented towards persuasion, not information. In addition, the Internet allows anyone to report their views, react to news, or forward (at no cost) the most outrageous and shocking stories (whether true or not). There are no editors reviewing most of what’s communicated and there are few controls over who says what. Second, marketing strategies that use statistics to segment consumers by age, race, religion, and other demographic factors, create brands to appeal to specific kinds of buyers. Just like in the presidential campaigns, one would ask, why spend money in places where you’ve got things already locked up and why spend money where you have little chance for a sale? Why indeed? When we combine the Internet as a means of communication with scientific marketing strategies as the way to identify who to communicate with, we end up with the dominant form of information sharing providing multiple segments of the audience with what it wants or likes to see, hear, or read.

If you write news for one of the hundreds of cable news stations, you select stories and tailor them to suit a specific audience. If you don’t do so, the marketing department’s survey will show that your stories don’t mesh well with the brand and don’t appeal to the audience. As a result, we no longer get four somewhat different retellings of the same story; instead, we get hundreds of different stories told from radically different perspectives. The authors’ commitment to determining what every rational person should be able to agree upon is greatly diminished. The amount of information on the Internet is overwhelming, so for us, sorting through the stories to figure out what’s the truth is too time consuming. We tend to choose an information channel or two we like and stick to them, or we passively take in what social media feeds us.

Several days a week, I watch the beginning of the local 5:00pm news on Fox. Since the show is broadcast from Atlanta, the opening story is just about always the same. It’s a report on a murder. If the lead story is not about a killing followed by another one or two, it’s about a terrible storm, tornado, or hurricane heading towards Atlanta. You may have thought that the show would begin with political news since that is the bread and butter of the network. That view is not quite right. The core of the Fox network’s appeal is fear. The target audience is white, conservative males. The station broadcasts to encourage and benefit from the audience’s fear of difference, loss of power, and change. The shows on Fox are not only about how politicians are trying to take away people’s rights, they are about the dangers of the stock market, the decline of the economy, the problems of staying healthy, the increase in inflation, the loss of jobs, and the unraveling of the moral fiber of America. Everything is negative except stories about people who are negative.

To understand the nature of a station’s or even a show’s brand, take a look at its commercials. People selling products want to spend money wisely, so they identify networks and their audiences that, according to the marketers, should be interested in their products, and they align their commercials with the show’s themes. If you watch Judge Judy on Fox, for example, her commercials will mainly be for legal services for those in car accidents. Watching only Fox (or watching only MSNBC for that matter) means getting just one perspective aimed at appealing to one kind of audience. Healthy scepticism is required when the focus is so tight.

Journalists can’t ever be completely objective. They have to tell the story from their own perspectives. Offering two extreme sides to every story is a poor solution to the recognition that journalists are human beings like everyone else. One side is generally far better researched and thought out than the other. In addition, there are far more than two sides to every story. Writers need to admit they have biases and make their biases an explicit part of the story when necessary. They have to consider various perspectives and write with integrity aimed at the good of a broad audience. And we, the America people, have to think about who we trust. We have to find reporters who are credible. We have to avoid outlets that play to our emotions. We have to take the time to test the validity of claims made in the media and challenge our networks and social media outlets to take responsibility for what’s being broadcast.

In the age of the Internet and scientific marketing, the burden has shifted to us. We have uncover hidden assumptions, we need to conduct research, we should identify fallacious reasoning, and we must make sound judgements. The news will never be the same again, Walter Cronkite. But, we have to keep in mind that the news has rarely been what Ben Franklin hoped for. We’ve found ways before to make the news better–we will do it again.

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