It’s Time to Update Journalism 101 in Pursuit of the Truth

10 mins read
Anonymous

I am seeing a lot of comments on my Twitter feed lately regarding the media treating Democrats and Republicans as if they are still “equal” political parties that function with a shared basis in the ideals of democracy.

Decades ago, I was a journalism student at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly’s motto then was “learn by doing.” This meant that if you took journalism classes, you wrote for the school newspaper or the campus radio. You also were required to do an unpaid student internship. I did mine with a local newspaper then called the Five Cities Times-Press-Recorder, a twice weekly publication located in the area. After my graduation, I went full-time at the paper. There I put into practice what I learned at Cal Poly.

In those days, getting as much information into the first paragraph was vital. Stories were measured by their column inches, and you never knew where your story might be cut off for space for a picture, another story or — much more likely — advertising. 

So the who, what, where, when, why, and how that are the building blocks of a news story had to be answered in that first paragraph. 

And yes, we were taught to give “equal” time to both parties in a story, whenever possible. There is a difference between a straight news story and investigative journalism. And this “equal time” was something editors looked for in your news story. 

For example, one of my “beats” was the commissioning of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. At the time, this was a national news story that happened to be in our newspaper’s backyard, literally. 

This meant being on speaking terms with executives and local managers; PR reps from the local gas and electric company; leaders of Mothers for Peace, the primary group leading the legal fight against the plant; representatives of the involved regulatory agency; lawyers for all of the litigants; and local Congressman Leon Panetta.

That’s a lot of people to quote equally, fairly and correctly. Most of the time, I managed. When I didn’t, I heard about it from whomever I had aggrieved. 

The purpose of the journalistic practice of reaching out to all sources is to give readers complete information and allow them to form their own opinions. At least that is what I was taught in my journalism classes. If warranted, a correction was issued in the very next edition on the page where the original story appeared. Fortunately, I had few of these.

The reporter’s personal opinions were not to be found in the story, although we would try to add “color” to the scenes we reported. These were often done as “sidebars” — a short piece of interesting information that didn’t fit into the main story but complemented it. Of course, you were never entitled to sacrifice accuracy even in the sidebar. 

We were also not often allowed to use “anonymous sources” like reporters do today. I can recall using an anonymous source once to protect an employee from the Diablo Canyon power plant. This occurred several years before the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act came into being, so real employment protection against retaliation didn’t exist then and wouldn’t have applied in this instance, as the person wasn’t a federal employee. 

The overly liberal use of anonymous quoting in the media today is one of the reasons I believe the public in general no longer has the high regard for journalism it once did. Stories are more believable when the people being interviewed are brave enough to put their name to what they say. Just a guess, but Washington doesn’t seem to have many brave people.

Most news organizations have rules about how many corroborating sources must attest to the same information. But that number is up to each individual news organization. Cable news anchors also often have a slick way of appropriating information these days by quoting stories from other news outlets and then saying “XYZ has not independently confirmed the story.”

The truth is … XYZ lost out to the competition in breaking the news and hasn’t been able to get its own sources to confirm it. In this case, the reader or viewer is being fed anonymously sourced information third-hand and uncorroborated. That’s another reason people are distrustful of the news media.

I realize that cable news programming has difficulty scrambling for unique stories in a 24-hour news cycle. But I am seeing this type of coverage as a matter of course, not as an occasional use of the practice. 

The cable news format is also challenging because sometimes the anchors are questioning others while offering their own opinions on the subject matter or acting as their own expert on someone else’s show. So what is this person’s journalistic role, really? And how is the viewer to distinguish between them?

Still, I would trust news from a well-known media source like The New York Times or The Washington Post before I would a blogger, no matter how many people follow them. (And I do occasionally blog, just to get my thoughts down on paper.)

Another reason the media follow a policy of giving both sides an equal chance to speak is advertising dollars. No publisher or broadcast network wants its news to be so lopsided it affects its bottom line, ratings or shareholder earnings.

Or at least that was the case until Fox News made its debut. Throw in Facebook and algorithms that can be adjusted to give status to some stories over others, and “journalism” really does become a crazy-quilt of “alternative realities.” 

But the rise of Fox News is when the shared sense of duty in Congress began to crack into what is now a Grand Canyon-sized fissure that makes governance of this country nearly impossible. When even a viral pandemic that has killed more than 700,000 people hasn’t done it, it’s hard to imagine what could. 

And everyone is playing the news for political purposes these days. The recent debt ceiling story is a great example. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer rightly pointed out that raising the debt ceiling means being able to pay trillions in debt incurred during the Trump Administration. To not raise the limit kills the full faith and credit of the United States and destroys not only our own economy but possibly the world’s, per Schumer. 

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed, somehow, that Republicans had no hand to help in this simple administrative exercise and his entire caucus wouldn’t vote for it. A deal was eventually made after several weeks of haggling wherein Republicans “allowed” a vote to be made along majority lines, which meant only Democrats passed the measure. 

Editorial opinion: McConnell blinked as the default deadline neared, but by agreeing to McConnell’s offer, Schumer handed the Kentuckian a talking point to be twisted for use against Democrats running for the House and Senate in 2022 midterm elections. In this case, presenting equal quotes from both sides offers not just different views but differing realities. Repeating a lie correctly doesn’t keep it from being a lie. 

So are Democrats and Republicans equally invested in the idea of democracy within our constitutional republic?

I am no longer a reporter, so my unadulterated opinion is “no.” And I say this as a former GOP voter. 

Which is why reporters today should do everything they can to interview and quote recognized sources about the anomalies between the two parties, the autocratic turn of the GOP, and how invested it is in holding permanent power in this country going forward — whether the majority of people want this or not.

Our nation, and whether or not we keep it, depends on it. 


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