We all know what good journalism is, don’t we?
It’s journalism we agree with.
For years, we have heard endless complaints from conservatives about the “liberal media.” It’s run by a bunch of snobbish elites determined to foist their left-wing ideology on us all. In the process, they ignore the real story of what is going on in America: decent, hard-working people are trying to find better lives for themselves and their children.
So, that meant liberals thought there was good journalism out there? Well, not exactly.
The “mainstream media” is run by corporate elites who are only in it for the money and who sensationalize the news. They concentrate on crime and entertainment and ignore the real story of what is going on in America, where decent hard-working people don’t have a chance against the big money folks.
I was listening to a discussion on the media on NPR Monday, and one of the commentators made an excellent point. Very few people actually know how the media works and very few actually know what good journalism is.
I spent almost 16 years as the co-owner of a small weekly newspaper, the DeWitt Era-Enterprise in southeast Arkansas. It would seem that we were worlds away from The New York Times, but in how we operated, the principles were the same. Tell the story as accurately and fairly as you can.
We were accused many times of getting the story wrong, not because we were wrong, but because the person didn’t like what we said. We were accused of biases. We were accused of sensationalism when we covered suicides and other disturbing stories. We ran the police reports every week, and readers loved them–until their names or the name of a close relative showed up in it. Then we were just terrible.
We made mistakes. I made a particularly spectacular one that involved one letter. I put down that a murder had taken place on E. Ninth Street instead of W. Ninth Street. The people who lived on E. Ninth Street were justifiably unhappy. But we never made stories up, we always checked things with sources (usually more than one), and I always had someone read all my work. We occasionally used anonymous sources, but we always knew who they were and would not use them if we didn’t think they were reliable.
But now journalists and the public are under attack more than ever by “fake news.”
Making stories up and presenting them as the real thing is not new, but it has gotten much easier in the age of the Internet.
A few years I ago I saw something on Facebook about Pepsi planning to issue a 911 memorial can with the pledge of allegiance on it, but leaving out “under God” so they wouldn’t offend anyone. It was followed by hysterical promises to boycott Pepsi. My first thought was “what a stupid idea!” My second thought was, “A big company like Pepsi with a bunch of marketing whizzes working for them wouldn’t do something that stupid.” So I checked it out, and of course it was untrue. I have berated many of my Facebook friends for posting false information and finally at least got my cousin to say that she would be more vigilant in the future about verifying what she posted.
Fake news that is made up can be checked out; if the Internet makes it easier to spread a fake story, it also makes it easier to debunk it. The Trump administration has carried this even further. Now in order to qualify as fake news, it is not even necessarily false. It is something the president and his minions don’t like.
So, what do we do? We must turn back to those journalists, the people we have denounced as biased, as corporate tools, as only interested in sensationalism. Sometimes they deserve denouncing. Nonetheless, many of them are serious about doing the job right and holding this administration accountable for their egregious lies, flip-flops and insults to just about anyone.
Some will say that it is better to get your information directly from the source rather than to go through the “gatekeepers” of a media organization. But as we have seen with Trump’s tweets, if the person putting out that information is not reasonably honest, you’re worse off without the aid of someone who is able to take a longer view and put things in perspective.
So how do you know what you’re reading or listening to is good journalism? Well, one way is to ask yourself, does it make everybody mad?