You won’t see much, if any, opinion in my writing. It’s a conscious decision. I do write about my own experiences, but I try to do so in such a way that it doesn’t create a conflict of interest for my journalism. I don’t claim to be without bias. We are all a product of our environment and upbringing. As a journalist, it’s not my job to be unbiased. It is to recognize that bias and compensate for it. Sadly, my profession sometimes seems hijacked in this regard.
Even as recently as two decades ago, viewers could reliably take the things television anchors said as fact. But back in the 1990’s, something began to change. With the advent of entire cable channels and radio networks to deliver news with a slant, audiences tune in to seek validation for what they already believe to be true. People are consuming, in large part, to reaffirm their thinking.
A good portion of the people you see on cable news shows are not journalists. Surprising? Not if you’re in the news business. Often, you’ll see commentators invited onto a show to help us understand the news, put information into context, or to clarify the position of a politician. Sometimes, even the host of a show is not a journalist. They aren’t there to give balance to the thoughts and ideas guests speak. Think Fox News’ Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, MSNBC’s Al Sharpton and Joe Scarborough, HLN’s Nancy Grace and Dr Drew. As much as we love them, these people are not in journalist roles. These hosts and guests can often be heard giving opinions. Some viewers are turn on “news” cable channels to learn news and fact, but they’re presented with something less.
It’s no wonder trust in journalism has eroded to an all-time low. In a recent study by Media Insight Project, just 6% of those polled say they have a lot of confidence in the media to get it right. To this journalist who deeply values the trust of the people she serves, that is the most alarming thing I’ve read since last year’s poll. I began this career with dreams of informing people through facts, which when put into context would allow them to make informed decisions when they vote and make other decisions in their daily lives.
The second most alarming thing I’ve read lately, was earlier in the week when I read this post from Eric Newton. In a nutshell, it says journalists have far less power now to be able to go to court to force government to hand over documents and information we feel is in the public interest. You might think that’s a good thing, but it’s not. Sure, there are many things published these days which serve curiosity, not the public interest. But there’s something very important at stake.
If you’ve been a young journalist who’s been mentored by me, you’ve heard me say these words, many times. “Our first priority as journalists is to hold elected, appointed and powerful people accountable for what they do and say. Ours is the only profession specifically protected by the Constitution.” Admittedly, we now do a poor job of accomplishing that lofty goal, but the responsibility remains and it’s up to real journalists to hold people in power accountable, including those in government and guests on shows.
Many times in my career, I’ve fought doggedly to obtain and confirm information that was, and is, incredibly important to the public. There have been times when I spent days, weeks and months badgering gatekeepers to get information that is important, and to which the public has a right. Knowing that the entire industry is less likely to go to court to enforce open records and meetings laws and the Freedom of Information Act, is frightening for many reasons beyond my own career. Those laws allow journalists to accomplish my number one goal.
So why don’t people trust us? The poll says it’s accuracy. Quoting the Associated Press story I linked above, “Nearly 90 percent of Americans say it’s extremely or very important that the media get their facts correct, according to the study. About 4 in 10 say they can remember a specific incident that eroded their confidence in the media, most often one that dealt with accuracy or a perception that it was one-sided.”
Print newsroom staffs have been cut in half several times in the last 15-20 years, and television newsrooms haven’t been spared either. There is a constant fear in many newsrooms of coming into work and being called into a meeting with a box of tissues on the table, the sure sign that there’s a reorganization or round of layoffs in the works. Business is business, but how can a small percentage of the journalists who used to fill newsrooms seats possibly accomplish the accuracy for which we used to be respected?
The state of our journalism union is dire! I see far too many young people being hired, no longer to the intern positions they would have been just two decades ago, but with the responsibility for writing and editing news. In many cases, they haven’t even graduated. I see too many of my competent and experienced, but now disillusioned colleagues leaving for public relations and communications positions. The very people who would have mentored young journalists 10 years ago are no longer around. It’s left our profession struggling to stay afloat under the weight of an expectation that has only increased with the dawn of the digital age. Gone are the days of Woodward and Bernstein. How sad is it that such a tremendous staple of our history can’t possibly be maintained? Investigations of the likes of Deep Throat are now dusty relics relegated to the back of the museum.
If I sound really, really depressed right about now, I’m not. I’m very concerned, but I’m also excited for the possibility to gain back the trust of the American Public. We (journalists) must do better! We have to convince our bosses to be willing to go after corrupt public officials who refuse to give the public information it has the right to see. And journalists have to be willing to fight harder to get that information. I have to be willing to fight harder. Yes, the finger is pointed squarely in my face. I am passionate about what I do, but sometimes I’m just as guilty of letting life get in the way of my calling. Knowing that 94% of the population has no trust in what I write is a not-so-gentle reminder that I, we, need to rededicate our journalist selves to fighting the way we used to, in order to accomplish that which sits solely on our shoulders.
The political season is in full swing. Investigative reporting on candidates is almost nowhere to be seen. There are a few print and web outlets that are doing good work, but I haven’t seen anything similar on television. Yes, I’ve seen a few hosts briefly attempt to nail down candidates on exactly where they stand on a specific issue, but it’s not enough. Nearly always, the attempt is hampered by the next commercial break that looms mere seconds away.
Why aren’t we digging? Why aren’t we holding these major candidates accountable for what they are doing and saying? Trump confines journalists to actual pens at events! That’s unprecedented, and many in the general public don’t know it. He commonly tells those who attend his events that the media is biased and dirty, so attendees think it’s only right to keep us at bay. Hillary isn’t allowing opportunities for journalists to ask her hard questions, or to even witness fundraising speeches, where even President Obama allows journalists to sit and listen. At least Trump calls into morning shows and exposes himself to possible scrutiny.
There are many things journalists could be doing that we’re not, but there’s a flip side. I alluded to it earlier. On the other side of the camera/web site/newspaper, sits the public. Don’t they want the truth? We’ve all heard the phrase “perception is reality.” The public itself has to do its part — to be open to facts that aren’t congruent with their deeply held beliefs. Can we get through to them? The first step is to try.