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American Journalism: Doing A Better Job

March 28, 2011


Holding public officials accountable is an essential role of the news media. Citizens need to know how well their government is handling its responsibilities in order to engage in the political process in a meaningful way.

– James T. Hamilton, Director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy

Journalism in America is not simply gathering notes and recording sound bytes. It is not catching someone in a gotcha moment. It is not reporting some terrible incident one moment with all due seriousness and then the very next moment smiling while reporting about some innocuous non-news space-filling feature.

I am not one for hyperbole or yellow-journalism, yet these two things are heavily in play these days in both the world of politics and news reporting. They feed off one another and neither benefits from the exercise. In fact, it debases each in their obligation to serve the American people in the best possible manner. It’s sad to say, but our press here in America is not doing its job — being the watchdog for the people. American media has become distracted by the need to be first at reporting a story though not always with all the necessary facts. Journalists are functioning under this pressure and influenced by profit centered corporate ownership. Too often this dynamic influences the quality of reporting by putting a slant on the stories selected and reported. And another disturbing trend is we find news is filtered and often laced with non-facts. Priorities of quality and integrity have been impacted or lost.

I am more concerned with the integrity of our press than our politics because I hold it to a higher standard. It must be above the rhetoric and the din of politics. It must not venture down into the mud pits. But it has. And worse than that is reporting has become the news. News organizations are reporting about each other: “Did you hear what so and so said over at Fox or MSNBC? This trend started about ten years ago when we saw opinion being offered as fact – editorializing as reporting. The trend is now a common occurrence and is an affront to journalism. It is a disservice to the American public.

I majored in three different areas, English, Psychology, and Journalism. Journalism has a clear set of objectives on what is worth reporting and a clear set of how to go about gathering the information with integrity. Who, what, where and when is what a reporter gathers to report the story. The ‘why’ is left for the opinion page or the editorial spot. I could care less about what a reporter thinks about a story. I want to know what is going on and leave the commentary out. Clever and cute are a function of one’s personality. I get that. But it really can be a terrible distraction when the viewer is simply in need of knowing the facts of the matter at hand. Straight news is deserving of reporting with as many of the facts as possible and with restraint of commentary. Let the viewers draw their own conclusions.

What is worse in this 21st century style of journalism is the blatant misrepresentation of opinion as watchdog journalism. Opinions are too often offered as facts and facts are skewed with opinions. There is real danger of slipping into propaganda with this type of “reporting”. Watchdog journalism is an essential element in the healthy functioning of our democracy. It keeps public officials and the powerful in check. It is largely investigative in nature. We have a few excellent organizations that engage in investigative journalism: Frontline, 60 Minutes, and certain staff members at the New York Times including assistant business and financial editor, Gretchen Morgenson.

A new breed of journalism is rapidly developing in a few areas: (i) blogging; (ii) Huffington Post style media with multiple hired guns and open blog commentary by readers; (iii) social networking. I engage in all three as I like to write, am interested in the world, and like sharing what I discover and what I know. Each platform has pitfalls though. There is strong evidence that in each we find opinions being reported as facts and vice-versa. And the most important of all — confirmation of information is a major challenge.

Case in point. I got caught this week in a fact-checking error. The Sendai-dog rescue story reported by CNN and ABC turned out to not be confirmed. A cloud of doubt over the validity of the original story emerged and is still unresolved. A reader of my blog called me out on this. I followed up and finally realized after a few days a fundamental error in reporting had occurred. It is called self-referencing. Each source was using the other to substantiate the other with no external independent source standing alone in and of itself. I see this everyday on the Web. AP Newswire is used frequently as the main source for multiple news outlets including top news organizations like Reuters, BBC, CNN and all the major newspapers. That is problematic.

As a blogger I heavily rely on quality news as reported by major news outlets. I check at least three sources to see if some opinion or inaccuracy or misreporting has crept into the reporting. I also use my own knowledge of the subject at hand to do what is called the setup or lead-in to the story. My own reasons for posting many stories is to point a big finger to a story and say to my readers, “Hey! Look at this! Isn’t this something we should be paying attention to? I also post stories on little reported news. I often juxtaposition serious issues like globalization with localization. I want to not only bring awareness to issues but help people to think more critically.

In choosing to blog last year the motive was to promote my book on unhealthy narcissism. What I came to understand along the way is there is a high degree of social narcissism at work within our world. As I have been researching and developing my second book on socially reinforced collective narcissism, my blog has been developing as well. I have broadened the range of topics and written about a range of issues. As I have done this my readership has widened. I take my responsibility seriously and even more so after the Sendai-dog incident. I want my blog to be the best I can offer no matter what the subject. That is what I expect from all media and what I demand from myself. Doing a better job is always in everyone’s best interest.

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