A Facebook friend recently responded to my photo album of journalism awards with a question I’ve avoided answering through the years, mostly because I don’t want to be cancelled: “What do you think of journalism today?”
After 15 years as a journalist and several more years writing straight-to-print press releases, I definitely have an opinion about the current state of news media. I also have what I believe are solutions.
Anyone who cares about the perspective of someone some of today’s journalists have referred to as a hideous old hag, feel free to read on and share.
Back in the day
Full disclosure: I did not become a journalist via the traditional route. Through a series of fortunate events, I Forrest Gumped my way into television news. A visionary leader “discovered” me, saw a diamond in the rough and gave me an entertainment franchise in the 5:00 news.
While I would never condone treating someone like an alien who wears vomit suits and beats grandparents, I do understand why many in the newsroom openly resented me for what they deemed an unfair intrusion into journalism. A bachelor of science in business and an MBA are not a journalism degree, and no one just saunters in to a market the size of Tulsa and starts off on air; so I had to work extra hard to earn respect and credibility.
Some small-minded people always got off on treating me like a bubble-headed beauty queen, even after I was winning exclusives, “firsts” and awards for investigation and enterprise stories. Those kinds of people have gaping voids where the rest of us have souls, and the more their imaginary arch nemeses succeed, the more justified they feel in their hate. But that’s another blog.
It wasn’t long before I transitioned from reading scripts someone else wrote, to researching and writing my own scripts. Still, news directors were smart enough to relegate me to recorded (not live) segments at the end of newscasts where I could just look pretty and read, and do as little damage as possible. The more I proved myself, the higher I rose through newscasts, until I was eventually assigned to lead stories or breaking news in every time slot.
Curious to know how I stacked up against “real” journalists, I (not my station) started searching for contests to enter my own work – and winning. Through sheer grit and determination, I earned my way from entitled powder puff beauty queen to award-winning investigative and enterprise journalist. And I think that journey makes me an authority on what I consider the current state of journalism.
What about today?
I know some good and earnest journalists who diligently and ethically endeavor to illuminate and inform their viewers with every story they tell. My hat is off to those shining examples of ethical journalism.
I know of many more activist journalists and wannabe celebrities who believe their duty is to influence the ignorant public. In fairness, some of these activists are so inexperienced, they don’t even realize they’re biased. It’s the duty of producers and editors to demand and teach balance.
But many reporters (and their editors) do intentionally bias and obfuscate with the specific mission of swaying public opinion. It’s not like it’s totally their fault, either. These days they learn in school that activism is their duty, and they learn the subtle tricks of bias that will enable them to get away with it.
Tricks of bias
I’ve written a lengthy blog on bias, highlighting glaring examples from editorial garbage that passes as news. I may release it one day, but for now, here are a few easy-to-recognize tricks:
- Providing no balance at all
- Relying on the flyaway, “couldn’t be reached for comment”
- Intentionally robbing the opposition of time to organize a response
- Citing other biased sources to simulate consensus
- Using activists as experts
- Bias in the headline, balance in the tag
- Bias in html coding to attract readers of similar stories (For example: “racist cops” implanted in the coding of stories about police shootings, or “Adolf Hitler” implanted in stories about Donald Trump)
- The obligatory balance-in-the-8-second-tag tactic
- Feigning balance by squeezing in an unsympathetic, unintelligent or extremist subject in order to repel viewers from what they consider the undesired perspective (e.g., Fox News’ repellent go-to liberal pundits that everybody – even the most hardcore liberal – loves to hate. Don’t get too excited. CNN does it, too.)
How’s that for balance?
In one example, a known activist reporter was preemptively admonished to balance a story about a controversial religious group petitioning to participate in an annual veterans’ celebration. The reporter characteristically disappeared for the day, and right at deadline – after the story was edited – submitted a script (not for approval, because it was intentionally too late, but for the teleprompter). When questioned about the story, the reporter referred to the combat veteran who didn’t want to overshadow veterans’ sacrifices with religious controversy as, “The racist angle.”
I anticipated the initial plan to mention the opposition in a throwaway tag of the sympathetic ride-along story featuring only the poor religious group, and required the reporter to balance the story with the other side – combat veterans who did not want a religious controversy to overshadow their annual event. That reporter really taught me – and manipulated a way to sway unwitting viewers to sympathize with one group, and view the other side as racist – because, to this reporter, that was the only possible explanation for their concerns.
How’s that for balance? And that’s just one of dozens of equally egregious examples of systemic bias I should share with you about today’s journalism. But those examples are for the book.
What do you want? I mentioned both sides!
Balance is not simply mentioning the sides. It’s allowing each side to argue with equal and equitable voracity and credence. How much more compelling would that story have been if the reporter had allowed both sides to express their perspectives – the religious group that just wants to show veterans how much they appreciate their sacrifice, and the veterans’ group that fears the controversy would take away from the veterans and their sacrifice. A real, live conundrum!
How often are viewers of today left with, “Gee, that’s a tough one. I’d hate to have to make that decision”? Instead, our choices are, “Kill the racist bastards!” Or, “Those damn extremists don’t belong in America anyway!”
Most news outlets covered the controversial group as the headline of the event, so the veterans’ concerns turned out to be warranted. Most news consumers came away from the news cycle with sympathy for the religious group and disdain for any racist who opposed them. Mission accomplished.
How does a community grow if we see each other as enemies?
I find that the most satisfying stories the ones where all questions have answers, and I have no idea where the reporter stands. How many of those stories do you see these days? (Please respond in the comments of this post with links to any story you believe meets these criteria: All questions answered by unbiased sources – not by other media reports – no bias tricks, both sides fairly represented, no opinions or judgments from the reporter.)
Activism is not journalism
We’re constantly exposed to abhorrent editorializing that passes for journalism. We see the obvious tricks of bias in a shocking majority of the stories that shape our opinions every day. While some ethical and diligent editors still have the energy to teach green reporters and require balance, too many editors are either too worn down, too lazy and complacent, too afraid of being accused of being conservative (kiss of death), or too corrupt to require real journalism.
As I was learning to be a better reporter, true journalists grilled me about balance. What did the other side say? How much time did you give them? Why don’t I see their soundbites? Where did these numbers come from? Why aren’t they sourced? And they would send me back to the drawing board with my tail between my legs and an indelible mark on my psyche.
When I asked the very same of today’s journalists, I was outed as a (*GASP*) conservative.
SIDE NOTE: To be honest, I can’t recall being especially married to any political ideology until I was forced to take sides a few years back. I made decisions in the voting booth on a case by case basis. In fact, going back through my award winning investigations, one might peg me as a liberal because I always stood up for the little guy against corporate and government corruption. I never thought about where my political party might stand, and I certainly never thought about what Donald Trump might think. But once I was outed as a conservative, my journalism career was effectively over.
The stamp of approval on shallow, biased stories grants them the same legitimacy and weight as well researched, well balanced stories with rich detail, legitimate sourcing, and deep historical perspective. And the news consuming public is becoming numb to the difference.
Credibility vs. Celebrity
Imagine being the journalist who produces quality work, and night after night, watches the ascension of some attractive but inexperienced toddler who believes Google is research, who doesn’t know the difference between Congress and the state legislature, or between jail and prison, or between state, city and county government, or who calls marines and airmen soldiers, or who doesn’t bother to take the time to learn the proper pronunciation of the names and towns in their own headline reports because they know Oklahoma is just a stepping stone to brighter spotlights.
I was once that green reporter ascending through the ranks, and I’m sure I committed plenty of breaches in my early career. But thankfully, I had strong and ethical editors and managers who reined me in, and Tulsa was never a stepping stone to larger markets. I valued credibility above celebrity, and I’ve always known enough to know, I don’t know much. Unlike many of the J-school graduates I’ve encountered, I was like a sponge – eager for constructive criticism from the experienced and respected storytellers and photographers who took the time to teach.
Visionary leaders like Regina Moon, Carolyn Williams and Stephanie Hill, and generous colleagues like Bill Mitchell (God rest his sweet soul), Jerry Giordano and Michael Wood, didn’t just scoff and whisper about the dimwit beauty queen they were forced to endure, but took the time to teach me the skills I needed to prove my worth. Thanks to true journalists, I was able to become more than just a beauty queen in expensive suits.
Thanks, but I know everything
Too many (not all) of today’s new reporters know it all, and they have the participation trophies to prove it. In their eyes, anyone who’s been around long enough to win awards is old and useless and should be sent to slaughter with the rest of the old nags. Their internship in some major newsroom trumps your real-world experience any day of the week, so shut up and go to the nursing home where you belong.
(When some of Tulsa’s most respected anchors are openly referred to as old and “hideous”, and, “past their expiration date”, you understand how much journalism has changed.)
What do I think about today’s journalism? I think it barely resembles yesterday’s journalism. Somewhere along the way, the mass media took an undisputed hard left. Fox News, Breitbart and other online outlets responded with a defensive, hard right perspective. One side makes every single issue about Donald Trump and relentlessly hammers away. The other side reflexively, dutifully, and perhaps blindly defends Donald Trump, no matter the facts. There is no middle ground where facts can be found.
The problem with blind pursuit is that the sides are no longer fettered by truth. How would we even know if crimes were being committed when one side contends every single thing is a crime, and the other side spends its time searching only for ways to indict the other side in their blind defense?
Tyrants rise when truth becomes irrelevant.
Today, news consumers pick a source whose bias makes us feel good, and tolerate the fact that we’ll probably never know the whole truth. As long as some version of the truth suits our ideology, we can call it news. And for me, that’s a terrifying place to be.
You can help save journalism
Now that you recognize bias…
Now that you’ve had a primer on bias, you will recognize it in the stories you’re fed every day.
Now, this is the hard part for all of us. No matter how much you agree with the bias, and no matter how good the bias makes you feel, you deserve better. You are smart enough to see the whole truth and still maintain your values and beliefs. Your ideology is not so frail that hearing a powerful opposing view will sway you to the Dark Side. The more you know, the stronger you should feel about what you believe.
So, when you see bias, call it out.
- Write letters to editors and tell them you expect better.
- Post your findings on social media with screen captures (not links – never drive traffic to an article that doesn’t deserve it) of the bias you uncovered.
- Ask questions.
- Demand answers.
- Research all the way to the source (not secondhand reports about the source).
- If a study is cited, find the study and read it.
- If an expert is used, research the expert and find direct quotes. See if they make political contributions (many do!).
- If someone (or something) is summarily dismissed, find out exactly when, why, and by whom.
For a refresher on how quickly slanderous lies can spread, think Nicholas Sandmann. For months, every search result led you to believe he was a vicious, racist punk who attacked a poor, old Native American war hero. (You may still believe that. If so, why are you reading this blog?)
You would be shocked to learn how frequently bogus assumptions get copied and pasted into story after story after story, with no one bothering to verify they were ever true in the first place.
“Well, that’s what everyone else is reporting,” is not journalism. The best journalists I know dispassionately check, double check and triple check before they report – regardless of what everyone else is reporting.
I’ll never forget the time a news director refused to report exclusive breaking news from a reliable inside source because – and I quote – “I haven’t seen anyone else report that.” You do understand the concept of BREAKING NEWS, correct? You do understand THIS IS THE WAY NEWS IS MADE?! Nope, this feckless, cowardly dolt made us wait until someone else reported the information, so we could safely copy and paste it into our updates.
I don’t care if it’s CNN, Fox News, the OAN or MSNBC. When we see bias, we should demand better. If we truly care about journalism, we must stop gravitating to the news source that offends us the least. Stop clicking on the stories of biased reporters, as well as their outlets. Clicks are like gold to the media. A critical click is exactly as valuable as an adoring click, so stop rewarding bias with your precious clicks.
Bias is like a cancer that indiscriminately destroys. And it’s not just killing conservative cells. It’s destroying the entire institution of journalism. Think about the national approval rating for the media. If one ideology was pleased with the bias that’s overwhelmingly in their favor, they would give the media favorable ratings. Why don’t they? Because deep down, everyone wants the media to be fair – even those who relish the slant.
Until smart consumers start expecting more out of our news outlets, journalism is doomed. And we – the news consuming public – are to blame.
Remember, you asked.