Telling the Truth: Thoughts on Journalistic Integrity

There is a clash of giants and percussion waves are pulsing through our culture and changing everything including the way we get our information and, ultimately, our truth. The clash is between the old way of getting the truth and the many new ways of getting it. My opinions in this essay are written in the light of my own professional experience working in newspapers, commercial and public television, and internet.

—Robert Lewis

The Origins of Journalism, A View

One could make a case that the arts in earlier times were a form of journalism. They recorded and reported events that happened at a distance. Murals, bas reliefs, paintings, even buildings, though highly slanted to the benefit of the patron who sponsored it, told stories often but not always based on an incident, such as a battle, or a major event such as the destruction of a city. So, in that sense, the visual arts might be considered a forerunner of journalism. Journalism itself, the reporting of events as they happened, attempting to be faithful to the truth, is something that, like visual art, evolved out of a kind of royal propaganda. At some point the idea of truth emerged as a value in story-telling and at that point the best of journalism was born.

Journalism vs. the Arts

Good journalism is a truthful, thorough reporting of events and conditions in the world without slanting the story so as to manipulate the opinion of the reader. This can be defined as “journalistic integrity”. This is different from an “editorial” in which the editor or the writer expresses their opinion. Once the writer moves into opinion they are no longer reporting, and the piece will begin to be more like poetry or art in the sense that they are attempting to get their own personal point of view across to the reader/viewer. In poetry, words are carefully chosen for effect, to bring the reader artfully to a conclusion, feeling, or opinion. Visual arts, like poetry, are also “editorial”. They manipulate the viewers thinking purposefully. Are journalism and the arts equally good at illuminating the social condition? No they are not equal, they are different, working in different ways entirely. One using dispassionate reporting, the other using tools to create emotional responses, usually to a specific end, in other words, to make a point.

Culture is Civilization

Journalism and the arts are the language of our culture. They are the way we talk about, digest, and illuminate what is happening in our world. Journalism and the arts can only become irrelevant if they become controlled. That is because both embody ways of telling the truth, exposing lies, shining a light into the darker areas. Without a free and smart press and without evolving, unfettered arts we would have no real culture; and culture is civilization. A civilization is not merely a system of delivering goods and services. Civilization arises after the system of delivering goods and services has been established and then there is the time and the ability to create the varied arts, including writing.

Who Tells the Story Best?

There is the sense that news sources are slanted and can not be trusted. That they are slanted is not something I can prove. It is something that seems apparent to me and to many people. It’s a gut feeling. So, following that gut feeling, it has become a lot of work to understand what is really happening in any given reported event. One needs to look at several sources of news on any particular story in order to get some sense of what really happened. To get at the truth on a particular subject, one must survey broadcast, cable, and internet news sources and opinion. This is because many news sources are clearly slanting their reporting to fit a particular political point of view on the only hope of finding the truth lies somewhere in a vague consensus of fact. Examples of this slanting of the news are obvious, but just to cite two broadcast sources: Fox “News” and MSNBC, each slanted toward the extremes of political viewpoints. This messing about with the truth in an arena where we expect the truth makes the news industry suspect. “News” begins to feel like propaganda and we instinctively distrust propaganda if we spot it. This tendency has left the news industry less effective in getting at and disseminating the truth to us.

The arts, on the other hand, and, in particular, film, movies, and video, either online, broadcast, or in theaters, but also literature and poetry, make no attempt at the objective truth. Their fiction always espouses a point of view and that is right and good; it is art, after all. The arts are designed and even presumed to manipulate opinion even if the goal of the piece is to leave the viewer without an opinion. It is still manipulation. The point of view expressed in a piece, either film, book, painting or poetry, might be fair or not, but the sheer drama of the presentation, the irony or comedic effect, is more effective at shaping the opinions of people and the overall civilization, especially as our culture reads less and less and becomes less discriminating.

Choose Your Poison?

The use of pundits, the use of “experts”, the use of unedited press releases, the blurring of the line between reporting and editorial opinion can all be effective ways of manipulating the message. Pundits, a little investigation will reveal, are often giving their supposed objective opinions on a subject, say oil drilling in the arctic, while actually sitting on the board of an oil company. This is just an example of how it is important to understand who is saying what and why.

However, readers/viewers often make a choice of comfort that may have more to do with whether they “like” the news anchor or pundit or the design of the publication, in other words, the “presentation” of the news or opinion. They like the style of, say, Fox over MSNBC. They may be more comfortable with the message as well. After all, these two news sources report the same news in entirely different ways, each, I suspect, slanting the news. If I choose to get my news from Fox or the Herald only, it is because I generally agree with the way they do things, not because I have proven to myself that they are accurate and unbiased. I bring my bias to their bias. Ironically, some of the most objective “news” or opinion may come from outspoken comedy shows like the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

So I say the average reader/viewer commits a lazy sin, the sin of just hearing what is comforting, and so is the worse for it. If I am inclined to be a radical and I only listen to radical points of view in order to bolster my own prejudices then I will never have a “balanced and fair” outlook.

But How Do We Know What’s True?

As we get further and further away from good examples of journalistic integrity, (such as, some would agree, the Cronkite/Eric Severeid era) we get used to sloppy reporting and we fall victim to distortions, omissions, even lies. Without a shining example of journalistic integrity always before us, how can we know that what we are being told is truthful, has been vetted, cross-checked, sourced? We can not. We become less educated, our expectations dumbed down, and we begin to be less critical. I am surprised that there isn’t an outcry that some news organizations are now reporting tweets as if they were opinions of qualified experts or qualified news sources. A tweet or a post should still be cross-checked, verified, and put into context. A Twitter thread is no more news than a series of phone calls or emails.

Is the News “manipulated” or “sensationalized”?

It seems apparent to me, though I can not prove it, that the bottom line is at work here. The bottom line being money. The more sensational, simplified, and inflammatory the news reporting, the more entertaining it is. It grabs you and holds you long enough to smoothly move your attention from the story into the next commercial. My best example is when I had come down out of the Sierras after a three week backpacking trip. For three weeks I had not seen any media at all. Checking into a hotel in Lone Pine, California, I showered and then sat on the bed and flipped on the TV. The tone of the anchors voice riveted me by his urgency and concern. I thought something horrible had happened and, turning on the tv mid-report, I held my breath as I tried to figure out what disaster had taken place. Finally I realized that the anchor was talking about the local council meeting the night before. Actually, nothing bad had happened at all. He had simply dramatized an ordinary event. I turned off the television with a snap, having seen how they had manipulated my emotions and captured my attention with an acting technique that seemed like it was designed to hold my attention long enough to ease me into the next sales pitch.

The manner in which a story is presented can sway the audience, just as a poem or a piece of art can do the same thing.

Does “talent” Use Its Power for Gain?

I may be cynical to say that a news pro who finds he has a talent for manipulating emotions might be tempted, for personal gain, to sway the news in a sensational way. So be it. A good example is the entertainer Glenn Beck who clearly had a very entertaining talent for hyperbole. He called himself an entertainer and did very well exploiting his particular talent until even Fox was too embarrassed. Blurring the lines between journalism and opinion, he presented himself as an expert reporter or pundit when in fact he was an entertainer. “I’m a rodeo clown,” he said in an interview, adding with a coy smile, “It takes great skill.” According to the New York Times “He was estimated to earn about $32 million in total revenues in 2009, the first year that he worked at Fox.”. I would say that his expertise definitely tempted him to pursue what he did for great gain.

Is Objective Reporting a Myth?

Objective reporting has been an ideal but it has rarely been achieved even by the most respected news sources. The truth of the matter in early news media such as newspapers and even today is that the news position is a big money-maker seemingly designed to give the viewer/reader a sense that they are informed while not boring them with details. Most broadcast evening news programs are only one half hour and do not have the time to go into details of stories. Cable news CNN does go into great detail on big news stories, often repeating content endlessly for hours or even days. PBS still presents a full hour, taking its time to go into detail and consulting with qualified experts. News outlets like NPR examine the news from many angles all day long and make a great attempt to be very objective. Both PBS and NPR are not directly funded primarily by traditional advertising, though a kind of advertising has certainly creeped into the public arena in the form of sponsorship credits. The statement “This program is supported by…” is often followed by up to one minute of information about the sponsoring company and I would like someone to explain to me the difference between this and regular advertising. The “public” outlets are flirting with danger here.

Objective reporting seems to be at the mercy of the advertisers. To keep the show moving along, or to keep the advertising percentage up in print, the reporting must be kept to a minimum. This leads to shallow stories in print and anchors interrupting the very people they are interviewing, in order to move things along to the most important bottom line: generating income in the form of advertising or fundraising.

Speaking only of online and broadcast/cable media, I think objectivity is a casualty. Click through any news cast and you can see the anchors seemingly amused at some stories and overly concerned about others. One gets the feeling that these people are only “readers” or actors playing the part of a news person. Usually the reporter on the scene does a better job, but from my personal experience a reporter will interview you in such a way that it seems apparent they already have the story in their mind and they ask questions that are designed to fulfill their own preconceptions. Then, when you see yourself on the news or in the news you see someone you don’t recognize. You see your own words taken out of context or, worse, your most important statements left out completely. How many have had this happen. Where is the objectivity? If a tv camera is pointed at you and a mic is thrust into your face, my advice is just say “No comment.” Don’t kid yourself that they really want to hear what you have to say. They want to see if what you say fits into what they want to say.

Having It Both Ways

The average person needs to understand the difference between fact and opinion. Define partisan journalism as editorial opinion and objective reporting as journalism then you can say without qualification that there is a legitimate place for both. Accurate reporting and editorial opinion are two different things entirely. There is a need for both. It is only when editorial opinion is presented as reporting that the confusion begins. The public needs to know the difference and the news service ought to have the journalistic integrity to label its content accordingly.

How Does Advertising Fit In?

Within the industry, be it print or electronic, there is a tension between the editorial department and the sales department. Each department has its own valid view. The company is a business and the sales people want to increase sales to the maximum. The company is a news service and, ideally, the editorial staff wants to be good enough to win a Pulitzer. The fact is that revenue from sales of advertising subsidizes the editorial content. On the other hand, the editorial content is one of the main reasons, but not the only reason, that readers choose the news service. I say one of the reasons because, particularly in print, the ads themselves are interesting to people. Sales staff know this. It keeps coming down to the bottom line until you have what they used to call MacParagraphs back in the ‘80s, stripped down editorial content that didn’t interfere too much with ad space and allowed readers to feel as if they were intelligently informed. USA Today pioneered this media-changing concept. So, these competing forces, sales and editorial, affect the reporting of news and, because of an inability to go into detail, affect the objectivity of the reporting as well.

Where Do People Get their News?

According to the Pew Institute “local TV draws a mass audience largely around a few popular subjects; local newspapers attract a smaller cohort of citizens but for a wider range of critically oriented subjects.” Also, 69% of Americans say the local newspaper no longer exists. According to Pew, readers primarily use local newspapers for weather, breaking news, and traffic reports, while a smaller group of readers uses the paper for many other issues. How do people get their LOCAL news? According to the Pew Institute study “Age is the most influential demographic”. Those under 40 tend to get local news from the internet first followed by newspapers, TV, radio, then word of mouth. Those over 40 tend to get their news first from newspapers, then TV, followed by the internet. However, overall, Mashable.com says “In surveys conducted by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, 34% of respondents said they read news online within the past 24 hours (as opposed to 31% who favored newspapers); and a full 41% said they get most of their news online, 10% more than those who said they got most of their news from a newspaper.”

Can News Survive?

So how can traditional news organizations find their way forward? Perhaps they can not survive as “traditional”, that is printed paper or evening newscasts. However, this change in the landscape is a real opportunity for those news services that want to establish a reputation as a trusted, objective news source. With all the noise online and as more and more sites get into the news game, re-purposing and repackaging stories, a news service that lives up to the highest standards will, in the long run, win the game. That is because if, in the vast amount of news choices, the public finds a reliable, respectable, constantly objective source, they will flock to that source and that source will, in the end, win the game.

Now, they may not be able to do this with advertising. That is, they may not be able to be that constantly objective source I speak of, unless they forego advertising. How will they be a viable business, you ask? That’s another essay, but already there are new ways of doing business online, sites that give high-quality content away for free, just as there are what are called “open source” applications and un-copyrighted content. These models work now and work well, but the quality is always an issue and, as of this writing, there are no standards or standards organizations to monitor this work.

Telling the Truth

If telling the truth is the primary goal of a news source and advertising is a negative influence, perhaps, in these modern times, non-profit, donation-based, crowd-sourced news services can emerge. If so, they will be able to deliver timely stories presented with objective journalistic integrity. They will be able to capture, in an honest and enlightening way, the truth and the flavor of what is happening in our world. They will understand that finding the truth and telling it to us unvarnished is a very lofty goal, worthy of a Pulitzer.

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