March 10, 2007

Today’s Reporters Won’t Do Their Real Jobs — And How We Are Worse Off Because of It

I saved this USA Today piece from Wednesday for the weekend, because the whole story at the link is fairly long. It is a pretty important story, because it showcases so much of what is wrong with the FORMERLY Mainstream Media, and why the uppercase letters in FORMERLY will almost undoubtedly become larger in the coming years.

You see, many, if not more, reporters in the FORMERLY Mainstream Media don’t seem to want to do their basic jobs any more. Their main tasks should be to:

  1. Objectively decide what is worthy of coverage.
  2. Go and observe what happens, and where needed, ask questions about what’s happening (the old who, what, where, when why).
  3. Take thorough notes of what you have found, observed, and discussed.
  4. Tell your audience what happened in a complete, accurate, thorough, and yet engaging manner.

Anyone who thinks that the above four tasks are “easy” probably isn’t doing the job well.

Even though doing the job a reporter should be doing is anything but easy, it would appears that it’s too boring. Today’s reporters want the excitement of being “advocates“:

More reporters embrace an advocacy role

The “social journalism” that made Oprah Winfrey an international fairy godmother is the new rage in network and cable news, and it’s expanding to other media.

Increasingly, journalists and talk-show hosts want to “own” a niche issue or problem, find ways to solve it and be associated with making this world a better place, as Winfrey has done with obesity, literacy and, most recently, education by founding a girls school in South Africa.

Experts say the competitive landscape, the need to be different and to keep eyeballs returning, is driving this trend, along with a genuine desire from some anchors and reporters to do good.

….. For example, as weatherman at WABC in New York for 18 years, Sam Champion did what he calls “a friendly version of weather.”

But in his new role as weather anchor of ABC News, Champion reports extensively on the effects of global warming and severe weather on Good Morning America, Nightline and World News Tonight, a unique beat in broadcast news.

“We want to do weather that matters, to be informative and expand the topic to help people better understand the climate,” says Champion, who unveiled GMA’s “weather center” last week.

….. But Brian Ross, who runs the investigative unit at ABC News, worries about the growth of this “agenda” reporting.

Though not singling out Dobbs or O’Reilly, Ross says the practice “clouds your vision and makes it sometimes difficult to see all sides. You want to be able to report and turn on a dime if the facts aren’t exactly fitting your agenda.”

Where to begin? The biggest problems are in the bolded items, and they all revolve around the idea of allowing yourself to be associated with an agenda to the point where you might not back away from it if the facts either don’t fit, or no longer fit.

  • If you “own” a niche issue and the facts and circumstances surrounding that issue change, will you have the integrity (or the objectivity) to change course? Or will you, in the process of “taking ownership,” blinded yourself to anything that would or should make you question the matter that you think you “own”?
  • If you really want to “do good,” would you not be doing more “good” for your audience by getting all the facts you can, getting both sides (or all sides) of an argument exposed, and leaving it to the viewer to make up their own mind? (Or do you think viewers can’t be trusted to evaluate a complete set of facts and that it is your “duty” to filter it for them?)
  • Champion reports on global warming and related matters as if they all involve indisputable facts. There is plenty of information indicating that global warming may not even be occurring; that it may not be occurring at a meaningful rate; that, even if it is occurring, it may not be caused by human activity; and that even if it is occurring at a meaningful rate and is caused by human activity, it may not be harmful. How much of THAT is Champion exposing? Or is his entire journalistic persona so tied up in reporting about global warming that he is blinding himself to any conceivably contrary information?
  • I daresay that the number of human beings able to “turn on a dime if the facts aren’t fitting the agenda” is very small. Witness the lack of people willing to unconditionally say “I was wrong, I am sorry,” in even the most obvious of circumstances. By choosing to be agenda-driven instead of sticking to the facts, that ability and willingness to “turn on a dime” really turns into a more difficult “willingness to admit a mistake.”

It’s hard enough to have to admit a mistake on basic facts, but it’s infinitely easier than having to admit that your agenda has been wrong all along — which is why it should be very obvious that “advocacy journalism,” if practiced over a period of decades, is a recipe for progressively less and less reliable news. This, I submit, is exactly what we have seen take place during the past 40 years, and we are all worse off for it.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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