By Don Frost
Many surveys over the last 20 or so years indicate that people no longer trust news sources, especially newspapers. Small wonder. This loss of trust started when professional journalists adopted what they call “advocacy journalism” and “interpretive reporting.”
The excuse for adopting this philosophy was that readers would benefit by having professional journalists interpret the complicated news of the day so readers wouldn’t have to. What that means is that journalists freed themselves to abandon the most basic ethics guideline that had governed reporters for generations: Report the five Ws and H and nothing more. That is, the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of a news story.
Modern journalists fervently deny that the “new journalism” in any way compromises their integrity as they spout utterly predictable clichés about their devotion to unbiased reporting. As in, “I am a professional journalist and I never let my personal opinions interfere with objective reporting of the news.”
Oh really? How often have you read news stories with lines like this, “President Trump said today, without evidence, . . .” The reporter/editor team’s interpretation was that there was no evidence to support what Trump said and it was, therefore, their duty to say so. In so stating that they were expressing their opinion that Trump is a fool or liar. If there truly was no evidence to support Trump’s claim, old-fashioned journalistic ethics required somebody else should say it, not the reporter.
A recent AOL headline read, “Trump’s baseless claim that the 2020 election is ‘RIGGED’” That’s the allegedly unbiased reporter saying the claim is baseless. To be ethical, that headline should read, “Trump claims the 2020 election is ‘RIGGED.’” Then and only then should the reporter dig up a Democrat to say his claim is baseless. Shouldn’t be hard. Nancy Pelosi would be happy to oblige.
At a rally for Trump during his 2016 campaign one of his supporters slugged an anti-Trump demonstrator. Not content to simply report the fact, the Chicago Tribune noted “a white Trump supporter” slugged “a black protester.” A cardinal rule laid down in Journalism Ethics class: “Never mention race in a news story unless it is relevant to the story.” Race was totally irrelevant in this instance. But if you’re a modern reporter with an ax to grind, you were free to point out the races of the two men because by so-doing you could suggest that Trump supporters were racists because Trump is a racist, “so vote for Clinton.”
If the editors who let this get into print forgot the edict against mentioning race when it had no bearing on the story, they’re incompetent. If they remembered the edict and still let it get into print, they’re unethical. There is no third choice.
Nonjournalists on the Left have come to realize they can enlist sympathetic reporters and editors to join their crusade, whatever it may be. In the wake of the George Floyd murder, a professional football player, Malcolm Jenkins, loftily described as “an activist for social justice and racial equality,” said, “Journalists must not make the grave mistake of allowing the world to go back to sleep.”
An ethical journalist would respond, “Well, do something newsworthy and I’ll report it.” Or more to the point, “If you want to air your opinions, buy an ad. I’m not here to do your bidding.” An ethically challenged journalist would respond, “What’s your official line? I’ll support it.” Jenkins was addressing the latter such reporters, of which there are thousands.
I think I know how it began. It was at least 1960, possibly earlier. I was 19 years old and a journalism major at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. Our Journalism 101 instructor organized a forum in which the news directors of the local radio and television stations and the editor of the Peoria Journal Star were posed the question, “What should the role of journalists be today?”
The discussion was lively and went on for a half hour or so with the radio and TV people doing most of the talking. Basically they believed modern journalists should help guide society by running stories that pointed out problems and offered solutions – crime and slums, for example. (Race was not the cause du jour that it has become.)
Meanwhile, Chuck Dancy, editor of the Journal Star, sat silently on the dias until our instructor, Paul Snider, asked, “Well, Chuck, what do you think?”
I paraphrase his response, but not his manner. “Our job, our role,” he growled, “is to report the news and that is all. It is not a reporter’s or editor’s job to direct society in any way. Reporters and editors are not elected to solve the crime problem or clear up slums. We should report news and if the facts spur social change, so be it. But we should never set out to be the directors or instigators of that change.”
We fledgling journalists were outraged, I among them. We were witnessing a very satisfying discussion, getting that warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from doing a good deed or expressing noble thoughts. Then Dancy opened his mouth and ruined it. How irresponsible of him, how narrow-minded, how mean-spirited, we told each other.
We students were on the threshold of joining society’s elite – journalists. We had a messianic view of ourselves. We were going to use the power of the press to change the world, to make it a better place for all mankind. We would have access to the rich, the powerful, the famous; the makers and shakers who would seek our favor. Through them we would gain information denied to ordinary people. We would be insiders, always in-the-know. It would be our bounden duty to employ our superior wisdom to guide ordinary people to what was best for them.
This was heady stuff for 18- and 19-year-olds, and here was Dancy telling us to be common, to restrict ourselves to bland reporting; to the five Ws and H.
They don’t give Pulitzers for reporting like that. They give Pulitzers for advocacy journalism; for interpretive reporting that brings about direct change in society or government.
But what if we never got to be the heavy hitters of the journalism world; the editorial writers and featured columnists who could flat-out tell the powers that be what they should and should not do? What if we remained nothing but assignment editors, beat reporters, photo editors, general assignment reporters, re-write men, and copy desk rim jocks? We could still advocate and influence, even if only in subtle ways, which is the best way to manipulate people anyhow; far more effective than editorials.
We could apply an unflattering or dismissive adjective to people and policies of which we did not approve. We could run a flattering picture of our candidate and an unflattering picture of the other guy (when’s the last time you saw a flattering picture of Trump in a newspaper?); prominently display a favorable story about our guy, bury an unfavorable story about him; prominently display an unfavorable story about the other guy, bury a favorable story about him.
We could highlight a glowing story about a policy of which we approve, bury a story that detracts from the policy we like. We could even call the guy we don’t like a liar by quoting him as saying something “without proof.” We knew readers would never notice because advocacy in this form would be so subtle it would escape notice; it would appear to be just old-fashioned factual reporting.
They’d never notice the subtle difference between “he said” and “he claimed,” for example. Or “his relationship with the Russians” and “his cozy relationship with the Russians.” Or “scientists who disagree with the theory of global warming” and “scientists who disagree with the widely accepted theory of global warming.”
Since 1960 I grew up. I owe Dancy an apology. He was bang on right. We journalists should report the news, not make it or worse, spin it, a polite term for propagandize. Spin and opinions belong on the editorial page or clearly labeled opinion columns like this, not slipped subtlety into the news columns.
Spin and bias are easy to spot if you look for them. When Republican Bruce Rauner was the governor of Illinois the Chicago Tribune supported him editorially. But Tribune reporters and copy editors did not. In news stories about him they almost always described him as the “former hedge fund CEO.” When applied to a governor that has a negative ring to it, doesn’t it? Or he was the “billionaire governor.” So he was one of those thoroughly demonized One Percenters out of touch with the lives of real people. Or he was the “rookie governor.” Sounds like a little kid out of his depth. Or his budget proposals were “anti-union.” Makes him sound like the Grinch determined to take food off the tables of good, honest, hard-working people.
An unethical journalist would defend these descriptors on the grounds that they are true. Rauner did run a hedge fund before becoming governor; he was a rookie governor; he is a billionaire; and unions don’t like his budget proposals. All of which is accurate, but they are spin – totally unnecessary adjectives – calculated to lower readers’ opinion of the governor and his policies.
Any journalist who justifies the casual use of such adjectives on the grounds that they’re true is expressing the arrogance that has cost the profession the public’s respect. It is noteworthy that the present Illinois governor and Rauner’s successor, Democrat J.B. Pritzker, is also a billionaire and a rookie governor. The Left-leaning Tribune never refers to him with those negative descriptors.
Trump made an unfortunate choice of words when he coined the phrase “fake news.” Now he’s stuck with it. But it’s not fake news. It’s biased reporting. If we, the people, cannot trust the news media to give us news unfiltered through a “liberal” bias, the media is, indeed, as Trump described it, “the enemy of the people.”
Don Frost blogs at www.commonsense931.wordpress.com.