Monday, January 30, 2017

Reporters' errors aren't what's killing the news industry

Reporters' mistakes and corrections aren't why the news industry has lost the trust of the American people. Liberal bias isn't even what's killing this industry. Above everything else, it's the sheer arrogance of some in our midst who believe they're better (smarter, more moral and more sophisticated) than the people in their audience and the people they're covering.

That arrogance manifests in any number of different ways, including the decision by many in the national political press to throw away all pretense of objectivity when it came to the election (it was the "moral" thing to do). But perhaps the most unsightly for average folks is the arrogance of many in the news media to appoint themselves the ultimate arbiters of truth rather than simply laying out facts as they've uncovered them and letting people judge those facts for themselves, and to show open scorn and derision toward anyone who looks at the world differently than they do.

The point is relevant as many people inside and outside of the traditional news media try to explain -- to themselves and to their audiences -- why it is that so many Americans are rejecting what was long referred to as the "mainstream" media. Among those industry professionals is Record Searchlight editor Silas Lyons, whose Jan. 27 column is promisingly titled, "Owning up to the media's errors". He begins:
One of the reasons there’s so much confusion about fake news and alternative facts these days is that legitimate, truth-seeking reporting so often contains errors.

It’s not fair to ask you to join the fight against the normalization of falsehood without acknowledging that we journalists have contributed to the current environment, even if we didn't mean to.

Our errors of fact, our biases, our inexperience with complex subject matter and any other number of human failings have only been magnified by changes in the news industry. While rushing to catch up with audiences who are moving at the speed of an iPhone on an airplane, we have also seen much of the easy money that once funded large newsrooms drain down the digital pipes.
Silas goes on to list what he sees as the causes of errors in reporting: working in a hurry, laziness, arrogance, intimidation (being afraid to ask questions), favoritism (unconsciously being more positive to the sources who help you out more), relying too much on your own observations rather than double-checking facts (as the Time magazine reporter did with the MLK bust) and, yes, political bias. Under arrogance, he writes:
This often causes lazy mistakes, but it’s a more sinister one. The journalist assumes her or his knowledge is superior and doesn’t make a serious inquiry into the truth. This can also take the form of a refusal to listen to people who have legitimate grievances or corrections to share.
All in all, it's a very good list of the pitfalls that can confront honest, well-meaning reporters if they don't remain vigilant. But the problem is that the bad habits of conscientious reporters barely scratch the surface in terms of responsibility for the public image crisis this industry faces.

Essentially there are two main threats to the survival of this industry as we know it -- corruption, which appears to mostly involve major corporate news organizations and mostly at the national level, and institutional arrogance, which permeates through a very large swath of the journalism industry and is exhibited at news organizations large and small, all across the country.

First, the corruption. I don't think many people at traditional outlets fully realize the impact that visible and blatant ethics violations, as evidenced by last year's collusion by national networks and newspapers with the Hillary Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee, have had on the public's trust of all news media. As I chronicled in detail in a post in October, journalists were caught fabricating stories, organizing protests, clearing their reports through the campaign before publication and even urging other journalists to suppress information. And this corruption isn't limited to coverage of election campaigns, either, as Katie Couric's deceptive editing of an interview for a gun control documentary proved.

These weren't "errors" -- these media folks knew what they were doing and meant to do it. Not one journalist was disciplined or let go by their news organizations as a result of their collusion; in fact, many were rewarded with White House gigs covering the president they just colluded against.

This is the biggest corruption scandal this industry has ever faced, it's still ongoing, and the deafening silence about it by professionals at otherwise respectable news outlets across the country has only reinforced the negative image. As the saying goes, silence is consent.

Institutional arrogance comes down to philosophy, and it's a tone that's set within newsrooms by people at the top. This tone establishes a company culture that reinforces approaches and habits, either good or bad. It's all how people within that newsroom see themselves relating to the outside world. I'm reminded of what I blogged in February 2011, when I was having a running debate with then-RS editorial page editor Bruce Ross over some guests on a radio show.
At a risk of oversimplification, I tend to lump what we loosely think of as news media into two main camps: one a cadre of elites that still see themselves as the same gatekeepers of public knowledge, opinion and morality that they thought they were 40 or 50 years ago; and the other having the goal of mainly arming their audiences with information so they can make their own judgments and decisions. Practitioners of the former include journalists, many of whom are old enough to remember their profession's zenith at Watergate. Practitioners of the latter include journalists but also citizens who disseminate information by posting on Facebook and Twitter, forming AgChat networks, sending text messages, holding meetings and going on talk shows.

I have a hunch that's why some media outlets feel so threatened by the tea party -- not because the movement may be conservative, but because it bypasses the gatekeepers and disseminates information to the public.

I believe the old gatekeeper model is doomed to failure, for any number of reasons. For one thing, people resent it in this information age. Perhaps more importantly, this thing we call journalism has long been a sort of jack-of-all-trades-and-master-at-none proposition, and is becoming even more so as news outlets are cutting their staffs.
Six years later, the elites are still trying to be gatekeepers, and they're getting angry, desperate and divisive. They're throwing full-blown tantrums in the White House press room because some New Media outlets got chosen for questions before they did. They've developed a catchphrase to describe any information that didn't come from them -- fake news. And many of them -- at all levels -- are lashing out at others on social media for posting stories and videos that aren't from sources of which they approve.

They don't trust you to sift through the information you receive and determine for yourself what's true, what's false, what's exaggerated, what's meant to be satire and what's intended to be presented as opinion.

This attitude and behavior are a big reason why I believe the corporate news industry as we've always known it may be gone in a very short time. Journalism -- the act of gathering and presenting information -- will go on in different forms, and some people will still be paid to do it. But the Old Media Guard that once defined journalism will be gone by any practical definition. And when it is dead and buried, history will record it as a suicide.

1 comment:

  1. Another factor may be the concentration of news media in fewer and fewer hands.
    Consider the plight of the Record-Searchlight, now held by USA Today. Silas is a very clear thinker, and his editorials are well thought out. However, more and more of the editorials in the Searchlight come from outside sources, particularly the LA Times!