From the right and the left, we see journalism criticized, derided, and critiqued almost daily. Those who are on the right side will drone on about the mainstream (a.k.a. “lamestream”) media who are biased and only report “fake news.” On the left, when a reporter tries to present the case sides of the public debate, they are often accused of pandering to “bothsidesism” and not reporting the hard facts.
What is the role of a journalist and a news organization? Are they simply there to present a reflection of what is being said on any issue, leaving the interpretation and conclusions to the reader? Or are they there to tell the truth, regardless of whom may be ruffled by the public chronicle?
Go on to Twitter and you will see this argument taking place almost daily. If you are looking for an explosion of back and forth on this issue, look in on a Sunday after all the public affairs shows have aired. You will see hosts attacked for not holding their guests’ feet to the fire as they put forth one opinion or another.
There is some history to this issue. Sixty years ago, tired of what he perceived as a liberal bias against him and fellow conservatives, after losing the race for California governor, Richard Nixon claimed he had given his last press conference. From that point forward, the idea that “liberal elites” arrogantly decided what was fact and fiction in media organizations is a theory embraced by many who favor conservative candidates and causes.
In response, especially before this digital era fractured our news landscape, national journalism outlets did not want to be tarred as being “one-sided”, so they would err on the side of reflection. The idea is that sunlight is the best disinfectant and by presenting each case, the truth would be exposed.
Mainstream media is still an important information source for many Americans. According to Nielsen, 21.46 million Americans tune in to one of the nightly network news shows. Say only 5% share a story on their social media feed, that’s over a million posts. Average a hundred views a post, and that story has been viewed by 100 million people.
We tend to see this issue exposed only in the context of national politics, but the issue of the role of the storyteller, the journalist, is key and crucial in several other areas down to the local level. My own experience in both the political and sports worlds serves as a good example.
Many teams want to build new stadiums. We have been in an unprecedented boom of venue development over the past few years. Today, it is not just about building the arena or stadium, but also a mixed-use area of residential and commercial development. With these developments come varying levels of public tax contributions.
Having fronted the team side of this, I can tell you the current teams (Chicago Bears, Oakland A’s among others) trying to build stadiums are saying these projects will provide all kinds of economic development. On top of that, they will argue that their current facilities are old, run-down, outdated, and do not provide the fan with a top-notch experience.
Countering this will be folks who say that franchise owners are rich and should not expect the public taxpayer to front any of the cost. Others will point and say that not enough affordable housing will be built. They will also claim that the jobs and economic development numbers are overblown.
Now, how is one journalist supposed to weed through complex economic and legal documentation and come up with the determination of which side is truth and which side is fiction? These are complex issues and often defy simple explanations. Frankly, in my role as source or spokesperson, I did not ever expect the media to take our argument at face value.
But to swing back to the national issues, is a journalist compelled to confront an interview subject with the facts every time fiction is spewed? In live television or radio interviews, that can get cumbersome. In text (digital or print) the reporter can write an article that shows the views of all, pointing out fact and fiction in an efficient manner.
Something like two-thirds of the United States believes that the 2020 election was held in a free and fair way. Nothing was stolen from the losers. From the city council to congress to the presidency the receiver of the most votes prevailed.
Vast majorities of this country also believe that climate change is real and man-made. It is settled science. We have seen tons of reports this summer about droughts and rivers and lakes drying up around the world. Hurricane Ian is just the latest “storm of the century” to hit our shores.
Just looking at these two issues, is it “bias” when a journalist points out the facts or calls out the subject’s misstatements? When someone says the presidential election was stolen or that climate change is fiction, and they are countered, is that not just part of dealing with the media? Also, when someone is stating a case, they should cite the source of their data and not make broad statements.
Somehow, a journalist must be both a mirror reflecting what is said on each side of a debate and a truthteller separating fact from fiction. We live in an era where many folks get their news from social media. This means stories are clipped and shared. The idea that one side of an argument gets a free pass or that any statement is immune from vetting does not serve any of us well.
We may not like what is being reported or we may have a different viewpoint, but those who report the news need to be both a mirror reflecting how a race is being run or an issue is being debated and the distributor of bona fide facts to the public.