Virtually every journalist I have ever known insists that they never made up news, that all they do is show their audience an accurate picture – as with a mirror– of what is going on in their world.
In the main, I believe that is true of virtually all professional journalists. Jayson Blair and other manufacturers of truth are rare exceptions, often discovered and exposed by the institutions they deceived.
But journalists do much more than present facts. Journalists and journalistic institutions play a major role in deciding, first and foremost, what constitutes “news.” Beyond that, these institutions are the arbiters of how much attention a story gets and how often, how other versions of that story are presented, and the disposition of unpopular if important topics.
Many newspapers in recent times have employed independent ombudsmen or public editors to call attention to mistakes or shortcomings, intentional or otherwise. That has been a healthy and influential development. TV and other forms of news have not really followed suit. And, yet, surprisingly, the New York Times recently eliminated its public editor position.
Given the fierce competition to break news, it should be no big surprise that mistakes occur from time to time. There’s a reason news is not called the final draft of history, but the first. The substance of such stories is easily corrected, and this simple fact by itself doesn’t make any news “fake” or “dishonest.”
Where journalism really risks overstepping is in the gray areas around how stories are handled and presented.
I cringe whenever I hear an anchor announce “our top story tonight” and wonder why a news source won’t let me decide for myself what the top story is. Proclaiming something to be a top story has a strong tendency to distort that story because of the special attention given to it, particularly for average viewers. That also has a strong tendency to create a thoughtless follow-the-leader parade among journalists and in social media. President Trump deftly exploits this flaw by giving the media a hot, shiny, new “top story” virtually every day!
Earlier this week the top story was the firing of Rex Tillerson. But to his probable chagrin, coverage of it will inevitably be short-lived. How much more do most people want to know about how, why, when Trump fired the worst Secretary of State in recent memory? Though the details and consequences of his firing might be vitally important, whether to the Russia investigation or to the future of the Iran nuclear deal, the shiny object that drew journalists’ attention in the immediate aftermath was whether Tillerson knew in advance or learned about his firing on Twitter. It is unlikely that the deeper story will emerge quickly or easily, leaving the attention of journalists and the public alike to wander.
The relevance of these points and questions—at a moment in time when the press is under more scrutiny for objectivity and accuracy than in a long time—is that even if the stories are of high quality, how the press presents and manages those stories quite often raises legitimate questions.
This may be therefore a good time to revisit the ombudsman concept, not only in print media, but with the major broadcast and cable news outlets, as well. If properly implemented, it could shore up the press at a time when our country desperately needs a truly free press.