It’s probably difficult for most of us to recognize quality journalism since it is such a rare bird. Not extinct, but rare indeed.
Quality journalism is:
Unfortunately, much of what is called journalism today is:
- Full of half-truths or even outright lies
- Limited in scope
I was lucky enough to work for a TV station back in the 80’s that truly believed in real journalism. WSMV-TV in Nashville, TN was well known at the time as a leader in quality journalism. The stories we did back then were so different from what passes at news today. The station won virtually every prestigious journalism award in existence.
The owners and management at the time were supporters of real journalism. Sadly, that changed and eventually got so bad, that all the trophies we’d won were actually tossed in the trash during a renovation. Seriously. Tossed in the dumpster.
They style of news we did then is what I call boots-on-the-ground journalism. Crews were sent out into the field to interview bonafide experts. We made a conscious effort to find experts from all pertinent viewpoints. We took the time to check the veracity of what they told us.
We also interviewed regular Joes and Janes who were affected by the topic. Here again, we made efforts to include a variety of people in order to understand the topic from multiple view points.
Our stories were longer than the average TV news story. We’d actually devote 20 minutes to a single story in an hour-long newscast if the topic warranted. Seven or eight minute stories were incredibly common for the special Projects Unit I worked in. That sort of depth is virtually unheard of in TV News, but we did it back in the day and our ratings were high.
What do we have today in the media in contrast to that style?
“Experts,” who are often quite partisan, are brought into the studio. The exact same group of “experts” is used day after day after day. Regular Joes and Janes rarely if ever get interviewed.
The vast differences in our methods back in the 80’s and what is done today, ensure that the resulting coverage simply does not qualify as “real journalism.” Viewers will never get the full story when only a small group of partisan hacks get a voice.
CONSEQUENCES OF POOR QUALITY JOURNALISM
Poor quality journalism leads to an uninformed population that is easily lead astray. Never was this more clear than the Iraq War coverage. It is highly unlikely that the American public would have supported the Iraq War if they’d known Saddam Hussein not only had nothing to do with 911, but also did not have WMDs.
It surprises most people to learn that there were plenty of experts who were saying those exact truths before the war commenced. As an avid newshound, I heard plenty of those facts before the war. It’s just that none of these contrary views were ever seen in the mainstream media. Only small, alternative media showcased those viewpoints and that simply is not enough to counteract the reporting of the mainstream media. Usually, only hardcore news junkies like me pay any attention to these smaller media outlets, although I think interest in them is growing because so many people are fed up with the mainstream media. However, often the alternative media is actually worse than standard media and feels free to tell complete lies.
FOMENTING DIVISION AND ANGER
In addition to leading people astray, I think biased, partisan news coverage is fomenting division, anger and contempt for fellow citizens. If you read comments on Facebook and other social media outlets, it is quite clear that people are at each others throats. So many people have been convinced by their branch of the media that the other side is full of crazy idiots and they are quite angry over this.
Partisan news coverage tends to be quite harsh in criticizing the other side. Bill O’Reilly calls people who don’t agree with him pinheads. Keith Olberman calls Bill O’Reily the worst person in the world.
That sort of talk should never happen on any news program that is supposed to be objective but of course it happens all the time. Olbermann and O’Reilly were quite extreme in their hatred for each other, but other newscasters make plenty of disparaging remarks about those on the other side.
Of course ordinary people are angry. They think fellow Americas are stupid, crazy and dedicated to the ruination of America. One side feels like it is lazy good-for-nothing idiots mooching off the hardworking. The other side is just as convinced that hordes of selfish greedy pigs are gaming the system and shutting them out.
I contend that although there is a grain of truth in both arguments, the vast majority of people fit neither stereotype. However I see no media taking this middle ground position so few people espouse those beliefs.
EXTREME VIEWPOINTS INSTEAD OF OBJECTIVITY AND FACTS
If you watch Fox News, you probably believe that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is grotesque government overreach by a socialist president who wants to limit your freedom. Socialism is downright evil according to Fox. If you watch MSNBC, you probably believe the Affordable Care Act was a courageous president’s great victory for individual liberty. Obviously, these two very divergent viewpoints can not both be true.
This type of coverage has led to a situation where most people have no clue what’s really in the Affordable Care Act. They just know they’re against it! Or for it.
Here is a link to an article based on a poll showing exactly this kind of confusion. The poll found that many people who say they are against the Affordable Care Act actually agree with its individual provisions. They’ve been led to believe that the law is terrible, yet when they hear what is actually in the law, they like it!
Perhaps if the news coverage had been more objective and instructive from the beginning, there would not have been so many people screaming at each other during Town Hall meetings.
COMEDIANS MORE INFORMATIVE THAN NEWSCASTERS
Here is a link to an article based on a study showing that Fox and MSNBC viewers both knew less about foreign affairs than people who watched no news at all. This same study found that listeners of NPR, viewers of the Sunday morning news shows and , believe it or not, The Daily Show tend to be the best informed.
It is a sad day in America when a comedian does a better job informing viewers than a “real” news show!
Although disconcerting, the results of both studies do not surprise me one iota. As an avid news watcher, (I like to flip) and someone who worked in local TV news for about 20 years, the sorry state of today’s media is one of my greatest concerns.
Fox and MSNBC are clearly the most biased in political matters. Most objective observers feel like Fox News is truly a wing of the Republican party, yet many viewers are extremely loyal and will watch nothing else. Fox viewers I have spoken with love FOX and scoff at people who say it is nothing but a propaganda machine.
Fox gets the best ratings overall of all cable news outlets. When Fox became a ratings powerhouse, other media outlets became more conservative in their coverage in an attempt to grab back some of their viewers. This became known as the “Fox Effect.”
MSNBC evolved into a liberal network because one of their anchors, Keith Olbermann was disgusted with Fox. According to Olbermann himself, in an interview with Bill Moyers, he made a conscious decision to use his MSNBC platform to counteract Fox. No one else had done that, instead they had followed suit as I just described in the “Fox Effect.”
Olbermann”s ratings skyrocketed. He was the Lone Ranger in the media calling out President George W. Bush so liberals cheered and tuned in eagerly. Olbermann was the first real ratings success the struggling network had had since its inception, so management embraced the idea and hired several more overtly liberal hosts, like Rachel Maddow. Olbermann left and few details were given. Speculation was they fired Olbermann because he was impossible to get along with, not because of his liberal views.
People often equate Fox and MSNBC as two propaganda outlets, one for the right the other for the left. I do not think this is true. MSNBC allows their liberal anchors quite a bit of latitude but they still seem to function as independent journalists who broadcast what they feel is right.
Before Olbermann, the channel had employed many conservatives, including Ann Coulter and Laura Ingram. The ratings had always been dismal and MSNBC was somewhat of a laughingstock within the industry.
Fox, on the other hand, was conceived by Roger Ailes, a right wing Republican who had worked for Richard Nixon. Fox was designed as a support system for the Republican party. Fox plugs the Republican Party talking points. Many people simply do not believe this, but in my research and observation, it is absolutely true. I am a firm believer that Fox News is the most successful propaganda outlet ever invented and can not even remotely be considered a quality source of information.
This distinction I just laid out may seem trivial, but in fact it is quite significant. Fox is a water carrier for the Republican Party, while MSNBC is staffed largely by liberals who insert their personal agendas into their reporting. Also, MSNBC employs some staunch conservatives, Like Joe Scarborough.
In a more perfect world, neither entity would operate as they do, but to equate the two is not accurate in my opinion.
I find MSNBC to be very narrow in their focus. Generally speaking, they do not cover much outside of U.S. politics, so no wonder their viewers know little about foreign affairs as found in the survey linked to above. Sometimes I actually find their refusal to cover popular stories refreshing. They virtually ignored the Casey Anthony trial, which got blanket coverage on other channels. Sensational stories like the Casey Anthony trial are popular with the public, but really are not that important in the overall scheme of things. The amount of airtime it received is disproportionate to its importance. Sensational stories are ratings grabbers so they get excessive coverage.
However, if all one ever watched was MSNBC, there is a lot going on in this world they would never hear about. Fox viewers on the other hand, are often seriously mislead as to what the facts actually are.
REAL JOURNALISM DARES TO BE DULL
My personal favorite motto as a worker in the TV News business is “Dare to be Dull.” I first heard this from my favorite News Director, Bob Selwyn, who hired me at WSMV-TV in 1983. Truth is, real journalism can be pretty dull. Facts, figures, in-depth explanations are rarely exciting, but can be incredibly important.
Notice the entire phrase. DARE to be dull. Not, STRIVE to be dull.
There’s usually a lot of pressure on TV news people to produce stories that are exciting. Very few in the business would agree with “Dare to be Dull” as a motto. Too bad IMHO.
If the story is not inherently exciting, then there are always ways to spice it up, but I contend doing so can take away from the important factual information.
On the other hand, if it’s boring, no one will watch and then what have you accomplished?
Obviously there needs to be some balance. Presenting a story in a compelling way is a great idea if that does not lead you to jazz it up beyond reason with hype and phony drama. Dramatic music and graphics with exploding letters are way overused in the industry.
Dare to be dull.
IN-DEPTH COVERAGE IS VIRTUALLY NON EXISTENT
Most stories are complex. It is simply impossible to cover every angle of a story in 1:30, which is the standard length for a TV news story. In that amount of time, you can barely scratch the surface.
Ask any TV news producer and they will tell you that this skimpy time limit is due to people having a short attention span. They say that TV news is just trying to please its audience by keeping things short and snappy.
To a certain extent, I agree with that, but not entirely. Trying to please an audience that would rather be watching a game show is indeed part of the overall problem. But, I also believe there indeed is an audience out there who would love to see comprehensive, in-depth coverage of stories that matter.
Thanks for reading.
Here are 15 articles on the blog for Demand Real Journalism, plus one about me, in case that is a concern.