Let’s get something straight, right off the bat. A journalist’s job is not to try to be popular. Often, a journalist’s job is going to make them unpopular. No one likes someone pointing out their favorite candidate has some skeletons in their closet. No one likes someone who shows the world that the company they work for is doing some nefarious things. No one likes someone who reports on a relative’s misdeeds.
Teeth were gnashed and pearls were clutched last week when news broke about a poll that said three-quarters of republicans trusted President Trump over the media. Members of the media asked How do journalists reach these people and What can journalists do to improve their standing? This was quite the waste of time. It’s not a journalist’s job to scratch these peoples’ backs and stroke their egos. The trope that there is nothing the media loves to cover more than itself is incredibly true. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes, it’s incredibly stupid.
A journalist’s job is a complex one, but it can be boiled down to this: To tell the community it serves about the world it lives in as accurately and thoroughly as possible. That means journalists tell stories through words and pictures about the good, the bad and the gray in the world. That isn’t going to please most of the people.
If a journalist strives for thoroughness and accuracy, they’re going to do their jobs correctly 100 percent of the time. Those are the two north stars of the field. Nothing else comes close. It means a journalist is going to talk to more than one person, to strive to dig in behind the official story. It means striving to ensure a story has its facts correct. It means making sure you’re not painting with too broad a brush and getting into the nuance of an issue. It means finding the voices who don’t have a microphone.
We often hear about other goals – particularly “fairness” and “balance.” The problem is those two goals often send journalists down the wrong path. If a journalist strives for “thoroughness” and “accuracy,” they’re going to get every side that matters into a story and they’re going to give them the treatment they deserve. If a journalist strives for “balance,” that means treating two sides equally. Think about that and how absurd that is. We often only see asked for in political reporting, where access and not stepping on toes seems to carry more weight than “thoroughness” and “accuracy.” Here’s a non-political example: the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Coverage that strived for accuracy and thoroughness during the trial would tell you what he was accused of, that he had not been convicted yet, who he was, who his victims were, what evidence the prosecution had, what happened at the trial. But if “balance” is your north star, the terror of his actions could be balanced against his perceived slights. Or against anything else, really. That’s the problem with balance. Like fairness, it’s subjective.
Often, a journalist’s thorough and accurate reporting is perceived as unfair by the people who are the subjects of – or care about the subjects of – coverage. A journalist can do their job perfectly and their work still somewhat justifiably called unfair.
I often think about the first media criticism I ever heard. In fact, it was basically my introduction to the idea of the media. I was a very young kid, 10-years-old at the most. My father had taken me to an anti-abortion march in northeastern Pennsylvania. As we were walking, WYOU’s Debbie Dunleavy showed up with a camera. My father immediately said the media was there to distort what was happening. This shocked me because that was the station we watched as a kid. Debbie Dunleavy was a godlike voice to me. Of course, my father was, too. I couldn’t understand why we would watch her if she lied. His response made no sense to me at the time. It was basically that the media lied about some things, but not others. I wish I could see that report now and judge it based on what I learned in school and more than a decade in newsrooms. However, I remember watching the news with my grandma that night – as I did every night – and thinking she didn’t say one bad thing about the marchers.
A few years ago, after a family get-together. My conservative then-brother-in-law and I were talking about a story on FOX News. We were in agreement that it was absurd. (Honest to god, I think it was the Tan Suit story, but I’m not sure). Suddenly, my father walked up and said he didn’t care. He liked O’Reilly because “At least he’s prolife.” That was it. That ended the matter to my dad.
He’s not alone. If Facebook does anything, it proves that. I have a friend whom we’ll call Adam. His feed is typical of many others. In the past two weeks, he’s shared memes that are easily provably false. One says Denzel Washington is a Trump Supporter. Another says Morgan Freeman is a Trump supporter. One compares “anti-trump” and “pro-trump” protests. Supposedly the pro-Trump protest is filled with American flags. However, an image search proves the “pro-Trump” rally is really people protesting the Westboro Baptist Church who was supposed to be protesting a dead Marine. One is that “Facebook is removing the share button on Pro-Trump posts” and claiming that’s an infringement on freedom of speech. You’ll also regularly see posts from Adam that you can’t trust the media because it lies to you.
You can’t reach Adam. Well, you can. But that means abandoning accuracy and thoroughness. If CNN started reporting that Freeman and Washington were holding rallies for the President, that Imams in Philadelphia were trying to take over Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, he might start to trust CNN.
Is this a problem on both sides of the aisle? You bet your damn ass it is. I’ve confronted Adam about this. He’ll actually admit that he wants the media to “be more conservative” without fully acknowledging that that means it has to be less accurate and thorough.
But here’s the deal. There isn’t a large chorus chanting for the media to cover things to the whims of single moms or African Americans. No one is advocating the press be fair to immigrants.
It seems that with the media – and so many other things – are being asked to cater to the nation’s most aggrieved populace: middle-aged, straight, white, Christian men. They cannot handle when others are given first priority. Even if those other groups are facts and objective reality.