What has gone wrong with the media?

Dec. 11, 2020
By Dale Kovar

More than 40 years ago when I was going through journalism training, the most important elements were accuracy and objectivity.

If there was any type of “error of fact” in something we wrote, the entire piece received a failing grade, regardless how well done the rest of it was. There was no alternative to being correct.

Next was objectivity. A reporter was never to interject his/her own views or thoughts into a story – simply report what someone said, accurately, and attribute it to the source.

These days, the fear of being wrong still drives me. Even in casual conversation, I notice myself qualifying statements in a way that can be defended so that I’m technically “not wrong.”

Media objectivity is a different matter.

Journalism students start their careers thinking they know what they need to. Of course, we are objective, right?

I don’t believe so anymore. Even with the best of intentions, every one of us comes with our own biases and frames of reference. Some have never seen a live cow; others don’t know how to use public transit.

Whether it’s political leanings, religious beliefs, or just plain life experience, reporters are influenced by what they know or what they want.

There is a huge amount of judgment involved – what is important? – and that’s followed by how to clearly express it. At the individual level, good reporters can do a credible job, but true objectivity doesn’t exist, any more than perfect, sinless behavior.

The media also faces its systemic pressures. Being human, people in leadership have their own biases. Big-spending advertisers have clout. So do personal relationships – positive or negative. And those are mild influences before taking into consideration greed and corruption.

The media also faces a battle of having to fight for attention. Things should be interesting or important, but that quickly turns into being as shocking as one can get by with.

“If it bleeds, it leads” is the TV slogan for ratings.

Both the news and entertainment sides of mass communication push the boundaries of what’s acceptable, usually in small increments, to compete for that attention. What was not allowed to be said or shown in TV’s early days is vastly different from now. We see women in their underwear in a toothpaste commercial because . . . it gets attention.

But where I’m going is the disturbing trend I’ve noticed in the national news media particularly this year.

In the midst of a pandemic and a highly charged election year, the media biases have become blatant.

Many times I’ve been shocked to hear the way things are reported.

Instead of professionally reporting what the president said, they add words like “the president’s FALSE claims.”

It is not the reporter’s role to color it as false or not. If it’s in doubt, the proper way would be to follow with an opposing quote attributed to another presumably credible source, not for the reporter to attach words like “baseless” or “wrong” to a statement.

It’s become outright discrediting as part of the reporting – not at all what journalism is meant to be.

Love or hate Trump, one must admit that Obama would not have been treated that way by the national media. He wouldn’t have been accused of having no evidence for what he stated.

This happens at the Twin Cities media level, as well. It’s often just one word inserted into a sentence that takes a legitimate news report and colors it with someone’s opinion.

Example: in November, WCCO reported that “our neighboring states have FINALLY instituted mask mandates.”

The actual news is that our neighboring states have instituted mask mandates. The word “finally” brings a overriding value judgment into it. Just tell us they now require masks; we’ll decide if that’s good or bad, or especially if it’s finally overdue.

So much for objectivity.

Humans write and report the news, and humans aren’t objective. There are too many opportunities to tweak things to one’s own preference.

That said, credible balanced reporting is still possible. It’s just hard to find these days.

Worst of all, I’m afraid many people aren’t even realizing this shift.

The mass media is in crisis. The tools of smart phones and social media have given everyone a voice, and as we know, there is free speech, not responsible speech.

The one thing the news media used to have was credibility. Now even that is being thrown away.

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