Christine Stuart of ctnewsjunkie.com has focused my attention onto a key problem of what passes for journalism now. A study published by the American Press Institute finds that Americans don’t support what it calls core values of journalism:
- Giving voice to the less powerful
- Social criticism
This misguided list goes along way to explaining what’s wrong with journalism and why it is destroying Americans’ trust in it. Specifically, who said these values are what journalism is about?
Journalism is essential
Ironically, the American Press Institute website itself clearly says what journalism should be: Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. So, to the extent the first three values fall within the truth umbrella, they’re okay, but the last two are not a justification of contemporary journalism but a confession of bias.
Let’s start with the truth and why journalism is important.
Truth is hard. Politicians lie, press representatives spin, bureaucracies cover up. The reproducibility crisis in science dates back to at least 2005. The average citizen does not have the training or time to dig through claims to sort out fact from spin from wishful thinking from outright lying. We need journalists to view claims skeptically, to interview multiple sources (especially those who disagree with promotors of a viewpoint), review public records, and fight for access to those records (Freedom of Information). Our society and democracy depend on vibrant journalism.
Journalism is losing its way
If journalists think their mission is to Give voice to the less powerful or social criticism they have ceased being journalists and become advocates. There is nothing wrong with advocacy, but being an advocate while pretending to be a journalist is counterproductive: it’s inevitably transparent to the conscientious reader and, rather than convincing anyone of the righteous of the cause will simply cause the reader to discount anything the journalist writes.
I currently subscribe to Journal Inquirer, Washington Post and Wall Street, have access to NY Times via a library, and read ctnewsjunkie.com. It’s highly informative to read stories about the same topic or event from multiple sources. Such an exercise makes clear how a journalist can write entirely true things while slanting a story one way or the other. While partisan readers may wholly buy one version or the other, in 2021 we can easily find other viewpoints. As Connecticut Senator Blumenthal foolishly proclaimed because he lied about “serving in Vietnam,” a point critics were quick to remind him after he rolled the quote out. in 2018, falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus (false in one thing, false in everything). Failure of a journalist or publication to scrupulously neutral in their reporting will simply cause us readers to just not believe what they write.
Spare us the melodrama
One of the modern conceits of journalism is Good stories have strong central characters.
No. Stories with “strong central characters” simply reek of spin. Substituting “human interest” for facts. There are seven and half billion people in the world, three hundred million in the USA, and three and half million in Connecticut. Trotting out one to five poignant stories isn’t going to convince me of anything. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good story as much as anyone, but that is what fiction is for. When I’m reading news, I would like facts, thank you very much, and the longer you go on about some persons misfortune the likelier is I’m just going to stop reading and move on.
We’re not stupid
Another conceit is that Good stories provide context.
No. Good stories provide facts. Using the example in the link above, I don’t need you to tell me What is Medicare. I’m old and haven’t been living under a rock my whole life. Even I don’t know what Medicare is, it’s 2021. I can find out if I want to: Wikipedia, Medicare (United States).
“Explaining” what Medicare is probably going to come across as condescending, overly simplified, and possibly biased. Tell me what I don’t know, not what you think I need to know as background.