December 13, 2005 > Editorial: What is news?
Editorial: What is news?
As I channel surf through different television newscasts and read newspapers, uneasiness comes over me. Part of this is due to an obvious slant, either for or against a political viewpoint, although the report may be disguised as impartial. I can live with this since it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to remove all bias from reporting and in many cases the prejudice is obvious. True believers will swallow anything that is in sync with their preconceived ideas; they will not be open to examining opposing or conflicting ideas, so argument will not be appreciated or fruitful. Others, willing to examine evidence logically, can adjust their response to the source of information and digest merits of the presentation without automatically accepting all conclusions. This type of media bias is distressing, but not new or unexpected. However, a different and genuinely devastating issue for the media is the expansion of tabloid journalism, both in print and on air, designed solely to gain audience ratings without regard to good news reporting.
I am not upset by the tabloids that have acknowledged their allegiance to fantasy and fiction by declaring the discovery of a living Elvis, alien babies or other nonsense. These publications have an entertainment value and, if infringing on the rights of others, seem willing to happily pay court settlements. People read this stuff knowing it is at least 90 percent imagination. No problem there. However, when journalism is purported to be serious and factual, a line is drawn and my chosen field of endeavor is at risk. Scandals at revered newspapers have diminished the status of these icons while news reporting competes with 24 hour, nonstop information on radio, television and the internet. The struggle for attention diverts interest from news reporting to the battlefield of entertainment.
My unease is, I guess, a consequence of growing up during the heyday of news reporting. Newspapers took pride in their veracity and radio and television legends such as Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and John Chancellor gave listeners and viewers a sense of gravity, purpose and stability. Sensationalism was a byproduct of events rather than the focus of newscasts. While much was known of political personalities, not everything was seen as fair game and standards of conduct prevailed. News reporting is an imperfect chain of events that relies on best efforts of all along its path to public exposure. In the news business, checks and balances are held in place by editorial fact checking and staff maturity. The line between fact or fiction and respect or contempt is at stake as well as the implied contract between publisher and reader. As the publisher of our local paper, representing our community, I take that pact seriously.