Wednesday, August 01, 2018

A RETURN TO PROFESSIONALISM

"We don't get to pick who wins, detective. Even if that means no one does."
--Special Agent David Rossi, Criminal Minds

Last time I posted, it was a lament at the collapse of professionalism across our culture, especially in the newsroom.  We've gone from grizzled professionals to hippie dippie space cadets with an agenda and as a result not just the quality of the product, but people's trust in the product of news has plummeted.

While its fun to mock annoying people and its easy to criticize, what can be done about this?  What is the solution?  What would professionalism look like, and be like?  How can the news media earn back any level of respect and trustworthiness?

NO GOLDEN AGE
The first thing to remember is that there never was a golden age of journalistic professionalism and accuracy.  They've always been misleading, lazy, incompetent, sloppy, and ignorant with occasional outstanding exceptions.  The biggest thing that's changed in the news is not so much the people involved, but the transparency and ease of fact checking.

50 years ago, you got the newspaper and had TV and radio news and that was it.  It took a special access to Nexis/Lexis database to dig into stories, and hours in microfiche at the library or local newspaper's "morgue" to find the story elsewhere or dig into the past to find consistency or support for the story.  Reporters were just as likely to mess things up or spin it, people just had no way to fact check them.  

That said, things have gotten significantly worse.  Where before a reporter might get things wrong or have a slant, today they actively push a specific agenda in their storytelling (there are a host of devices used, as covered in bias in my older bit on reporting), and suppress information that is problematic to their agenda.  Where before most strong opinion statements were excised from reporting and restricted to the op/ed page, now its showing up in news articles.  When President Trump was elected, even prestigious newspapers literally stated that they were going to abandon any pretense of objectivity and specifically oppose the man.

CLEANING HOUSE
The first hurdle is to get journalism to move back to its proper, necessary, and original purpose.  The reason that the 1st amendment specifically protects the press, and the reason the news media is called the "fourth estate" in the USA (fourth after congress, presidency, and supreme court) is very significant.  It refers to the need for a Democratic Republic to have an informed public in order to vote and choose proper representatives.  Ignorant and ill-informed people make worse choices than they would if well-informed.

The purpose of the news media is to accurately, and usefully, inform.  That means not only does their job require them to be factual and complete, but cover useful, valuable, and noteworthy events.  In no place does this job ever require or even find value in manipulating people's opinions, pushing an agenda, assisting an agenda, or silencing another agenda.

The problem with most journalism today is that they are specifically taught and personally inclined to think of their job not as information but as changing the world, making the world a better place, or fighting evil.  They are literally taught in Journalism School that they are not just reporting news to inform, but reporting news to shape a better future, that they have a moral responsibility to do so.

That has to change for anything positive to come out of the news.  Journalists need to learn to report the facts, and back away.  And the only way for that to begin to happen is to clean up J-school and expectations of young would-be journalists.  Start them out with the right perspective and goals, and you will weed out the ones who think its a religious calling or political platform.

KNOW THE DIFFERENCE
Part of the need for fact-based reporting is the need for reporters to understand the difference between fact an opinion.  This is a challenging lesson for a lot of younger people, since they've been largely raised to think that there is no actual absolute truth, that truth is a narrative and you make your own truth up.  They have to understand that there actually is such a thing as an objective fact, and to recognize that as opposed to what they feel, think, believe, or wish to be true.

Anything that isn't the facts and information in a story needs to be relegated to the opinion pages or one's social media feed.  This includes things such as playing "hide the party" and burying the lede.  Hide the Party is when you don't mention a scandal-plagued politician's party until deep into the article (if ever) when they are a Democrat, where you list the party affiliation early and often if it is Republican.  

Bury the lede is when you conceal the main point of the story in the headline or early paragraphs on the assumption that most people only read those parts and will miss the key story.  Why do this?  So you can technically have covered a topic (say, Benghazi) while misleading readers on the story.

Knowing that there is actual fact and truth, and distinguishing between that and opinion is a skill not being taught in school, let alone J-School, and not taught while learning while on the job.  I say this because I can see that these reporters literally do not seem to understand the distinction from their social media commentary and writing in news stories.  They honestly think that their spin on something is the facts.

NO POLLS
By sticking to "just the facts, ma'am" reporting will be forced away from certain kinds of news stories.  For example, in the last year and a half we've been assaulted by a deluge of rumors printed as news.  A nameless White House contact claims they head something, and the reporter third hand prints that as news.  Its not news.  Its rumor, its unsubstantiated hearsay, and its almost always utterly wrong and humiliating for the news organization.  After reading this stuff the fiftieth time, even the densest partisan starts to suspect they might not be able to trust the news.

Another form of non-news printed as facts is the poll.  Journalists love polls.  Pundits love polls.  News junkies love polls.  And as I have written about dozens of times in the past, polls are almost all trash, and even where they are useful are not news.  It is not news that you asked a group of people something and they all said "x."  That is simply a collection of opinions.  It means nothing.

I get it, people want to know the future, and love to read astrology tea leaves tarot cards opinion polling.  They want that druid to look at the entrails of the goat and see the future.  They want to know what they do not and cannot know, in advance, for some sense of comfort and peace.  But that is not news, its simply someone's or some group of people's opinions.  And opinions are not news.

Further, despite claims by pollsters and statisticians, they are not even scientific: too much depends on how, where, and to whom you poll, not to mention that claiming a question asked of a thousand people somehow rationally represents the ideas of over three hundred million.

Even when polls are not massaged through careful choice of who is polled and when or how the questions are asked, such as asking more Democrats than Republicans, or calling at a time of day you can reliably avoid opinions you don't want to hear from, its still not reliably scientific.

And the worst kind of poll reporting is when a news organization has an opinion or idea that they want to print as a story, but don't have the actual story to run.  So they do a poll on this topic, then report on the poll; they aren't reporting the news they are creating the "news" and that's not their job.

EVEN HANDED
Another key thing for journalists to re-learn and carry out is that they have to be hard-hitting, ruthless, and agnostic in their determination to report the facts.  Who is hurt or helped, what agenda is driven, how people respond to the facts, none of that matters.  What matters is the truth and accuracy.  This means that reporters have to ignore the party of the person they are writing about or what "narrative" is being carried out and just hit the facts.

Whether the subject of a news story or investigation is of party x or party y, whether they are conservative or libertarian or leftist or whatever, the news reporter needs to attack the story from the same perspective: facts, truth, completion; what I can support and substantiate.  Writing a story about a homosexual black lesbian in a wheelchair should not be any different job than an old white industrialist laying off workers.  Stick to the facts; do your job.

Informing the public means giving them the information they need to decide for themselves, and all the information they need to decide for themselves.  News reporters are not, as failed Seattle Times reporter stated "the deciders."  They are the voices of the facts, not the ones who pick and shape it.

Further, personalities and ego are not part of the job.  Nobody wants to know who is reporting the news.  They want the facts.  This is not a job for people who want the limelight.  Its a job for people who want their work to shine.  Its not "the news by Jim Acosta" its just the news.

ANTAGONISTIC
Additionally, the critical job of the reporter in order to fulfill their task as the fourth estate is to be the one who goes after those in power.  They have a duty to dig into corruption, incompetence, illegality, and failure from those in power, no matter who they are.  The press is only a fourth estate -- a check against the other three -- if they take their role seriously as being that check.  

The press needs to be the voice of justice against those in power who try to be above justice.  The press needs to give voters the information they require to properly vote and choose candidates.  If it will not do so, or worse, only does so with certain types of those in power, they are better being entirely gone than continuing to betray their very reason for existence.

FINAL KEYS
The main key is consistency.  I don't care if the press goes after president Trump and ties to find fault in him if they do so with President Obama as well.  Adulating and cheering one while despising the other is a complete failure of professionalism.  It is an abdication of their role as the fourth estate.  The journalist who only goes after one party, no matter what party, is a disaster and a total failure of a journalist.  They are betraying the people and their very profession.

That means no pictures of one politician with a halo and their opponent scowling and looking angry.  It means no news stories condemning the number of vacations taken by one and admiring the other for knowing how to relax and take time off to recharge.  It means no news stories focusing on one politician's stupid gaffes and none on the other's.

No reporter can avoid bias, but what they can do is have rigorous, ruthless professionals in positions of authority in the job.  Editors should be without mercy or personal attachment with reporters, tearing down everything that does not belong and building up what does.  Reporters need to both be encouraged to do what is right and crushed for doing what is wrong.

The only way this can happen, of course, is if people are so disgusted by the incompetence, sloth, ignorance, credulity, bias, and overall lack of professionalism in news reporting that they abandon it to the point of bankruptcy and ruin in the industry.  From the ashes, a new breed can arise that is honest, hard-working, focused on the job, and professional.

Lacking that?  I just see things getting worse and worse, with people dividing more viciously into sides and bubbling themselves with their favored news sources to the exclusion of everything that might help them know the facts.

1 comment:

JoelAT said...

Well said sir!