So if you were editor or a reporter, encumbered by those inevitable (and mostly liberal) opinions that we discussed in this space last week, what would you do to perform your duties in a nonpartisan way? And, equally important, what would you do to avoid the appearance of partisanship?
A Gallup poll taken in the fall of 2016 revealed that only 32 percent of the American public trusts the mass media. That’s the lowest level of trust recorded in Gallup’s polling history.
Earlier this month CNN reported that a Washington Post reporter who participated — note that word — in a conference sponsored by the progressive advocacy group, Democracy Alliance, had been put on leave. Janell Ross, a reporter on the Post’s national desk, appeared at the conference in November and sat on a panel focused on “getting the economic narrative right.”
Ross’ involvement was reported by the Washington Free Beacon on November 22 and became headline news for other conservative news outlets. “Ross presents herself and is presented by the Post as an objective journalist,” Breitbart reported in a holier-than-thou tone in November. The Fox News headline read, “Washington Post reporter caught plotting liberal agenda.”
Last week (January 16) the Harvard-based Nieman Lab reported on a survey from Gallup and the Knight Foundation titled “American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy.” Nieman’s takeaway: Most Americans still believe that journalism plays an important role in democracy, but that just 33 percent have a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” opinion of the news media.
The Nieman account noted that “unsurprisingly, political polarization is behind a lot of the divergence. While 54 percent of Democrats hold a favorable view of the news media, only 15 percent of Republicans do. Compared to Democrats, Republicans were also significantly more likely to identify reporting bias, sensationalism, and ideology as major problems with news media today.”
I was recently interviewed on this very subject by Steve Mariotti, a Princeton-based entrepreneurial consultant and writer. Here’s an excerpt of that exchange, with some updated answers:
Q.: During the course of your 50 years as a journalist, how have you seen partisanship develop? Has it been a slow march toward the current state, erratic bursts of sentiment, or something else entirely?
A.: I think sides are being taken much more quickly today than they used to be — the change roughly corresponding to the speed with which we can transmit news. I’m amazed how many journalists tweet an immediate reaction to some breaking news story. Frankly I don’t see the value in that.
Q.: To what do you attribute this surprising response?
A.: Part of it is that the mass media is no longer so massive. Thanks to the Internet more people have more choices of news sources than ever before. And increasingly people are gravitating to those sources that reinforce their own thinking. That sliver of the media becomes trusted. The rest must be untrustworthy.
Reporters put themselves in the middle of the fray, rather than outside it looking in, when they appear on television, radio, and internet talk shows commenting on news stories. They may be carefully weighing their words as any responsible, non-partisan journalist would, but it may not appear that way to the viewer, who often sees them as just another advocate for a particular point of view.
Q.: You have defined some reality checks for writers/journalists who struggle with maintaining a “fair and balanced” perspective. Could you elaborate on them?
A.: First off label your work — if it’s an opinion piece or news analysis let readers and viewers know that it is. If your publication offers advertisers “special advertising features” make sure they are labeled as such and are readily differentiated from regular news stories. Admit any conflicts of interest, or — and this is important — any appearances of conflict.
And whatever you do, don’t get lured into participating in a partisan political movement or event, as the Washington Post reporter did. (And check out the movie, “The Post,” to see the consequences of editors cozying up to politicians in the Vietnam War era). Even at the community journalism level, it can be tempting and flattering to be asked to participate in a “study group” regarding an issue relevant to the town you cover — a town in which you may also live. Go as a reporter, not a participant. As John McPhee advises in “Draft No. 4,” his latest book, “Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license.”
Be open about your own views — don’t try to fool your readers or viewers by telling them you have no opinions. The fact is that most everyone these days has an opinion, or lots of opinions.
Accept criticism. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that journalists tend to have thin skin. We can quickly criticize elected officials or we can pan a theater production, but we usually don’t take kindly to anyone who gives us a bad review. Letters that criticize a reporter’s story are often followed by caviling rebuttals from the reporter or the editor. It discourages other potential letter writers.
The media should seek out letters and op-ed pieces, especially from people whose views may not be shared by the majority in the community. A good editor might even help the letter writer formulate his thoughts.
Q.: To what extent has the media created its own crisis of faith? In other words, in its quest for market share, did it become a race to the bottom with too much emphasis on the quick and the sensational?
A.: Television news programs have certainly been guilty of that. The old expression in how local newscasts are presented reflects some reality: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Weather reporting also has strong ratings, and some of us wonder if the weather reporters tend to over-dramatize impending storms in order to hype ratings. That’s not a light criticism since the public’s understanding of how severe a storm could be is crucial in determining whether it heeds evacuations orders and so forth.
Now print newspapers are getting into that, as well, as some reporters and photographers are being paid by the click for material posted to the Internet. A reporter who might otherwise dig into a complicated zoning issue or traffic study might choose instead to write a quick survey story on “the 10 best bars in town,” or some similar piece of “click bait.” I was told that last summer photographers flocked to cover — and post online photo galleries of — a lifeguard bikini contest at the shore. No surprise.
Q.: Writers need readers. What can journalists, local and national, do to encourage readers to move beyond the headline and a knee-jerk reaction to those few words?
A.: Writers and their editors need to humanize their subjects. Tell that complicated and possibly boring zoning story from the point of view of a homeowner who could be adversely affected by it. Be an empathic reporter or editor — put yourself in your reader’s shoes and make sure that the information is presented in a way that will be readily understandable.
Tell a story, don’t just assemble a list of facts. You don’t want to become another Wikipedia.
Don’t be afraid to reveal your own emotions when it’s appropriate. Being fair and non-partisan doesn’t mean that you have to be soulless. And if you write from the heart on occasions that have nothing to do with partisan politics, then readers may begin to view you as something other than another piece of the left-leaning, lamestream, political apparatchik.