Americans should forget about getting ‘real’ news

Americans should forget about getting ‘real’ news
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Americans around the country, including President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE, decry the journalism establishment for dispensing “fake news.” Citizens on the left denounce Fox News and right-leaning talk radio hosts for spreading propaganda. News consumers on the right vilify the New York Times, CNN and most other mainstream outlets as blatantly biased. These citizens should save their energy and anger. That’s because all of the news is, in essence, “fake.”

Any news report is generated through the predispositions, attitudes, beliefs and life experiences of the reporters and editors. It can’t be otherwise. News accounts are concocted through multiple human prisms, all of which distort, exaggerate, warp and/or minimize any particular real event. It is unrealistic to imagine the personal backgrounds of reporters don’t affect the tone of an individual story, and in a larger sense, the topics chosen for the broader news agenda. Given this backdrop, expecting fully objective news reports is imprudent.

Reporting the news accurately, comprehensively and fairly is an enormous challenge. The governmental and societal chaos today perhaps makes the challenge almost insurmountable. The twentieth century sociopolitical columnist, Walter Lippmann, once wrote that when “unfamiliar and complex things are communicated to great masses of people, the truth suffers a considerable and often radical distortion. The complex is made over into the simple, the hypothetical into the dogmatic, and the relative into an absolute.” Such effects are in evidence today on news topics ranging from border security to the government shutdown to world economics to cultural rot, and indeed, to the presidency of Trump.

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The concern many American citizens share today is whether the news establishment is even trying to battle “radical distortion.” Today’s journalistic product is too often characterized by quick hitters, sound bites, viral videos and social media jabs that surely reduce complexities into simplicities. News reporting is mixed often with commentary and subjective wording. The news agenda lurches from one pack mentality fascination to another.

Fairness is a skill that can and should be developed. Determined journalists can work beyond their personal opinions to deliver sensibly framed news. But it takes work for reporters to consult multiple sources and work around their personal opinions. It also takes newsroom management committed to making sure there is a range of intellectual and experiential backgrounds on their reporting staffs. Journalism executives must work to avoid newsroom groupthink, and hire reporters who don’t necessarily think like the management. Lippmann’s insights apply here, too, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”

The complex media marketplace has complicated the way news gets circulated in the 21st century. In today’s media landscape, niche outlets can get enough news consumer traffic to make a go of it with a narrow slice of the audience. These outlets can push partisan directions and allow consumers to fill their need for confirmation bias, the seeking out of “news” outlets that support predetermined attitudes and political dispositions. Wild reports can catch fire in social media and develop a wide following. Ultimately, however, such outlets have gained traction, at least in part, by the public perception that traditional news organizations have abandoned professional standards of impartiality.

News consuming citizens must empower themselves to get information and informed analysis that makes sense to themselves. This also takes work. Citizens who rely on ideologically driven outlets or social media for news just aren’t going to be fully informed. News consumers of today need to get news from a variety of sources and read them in depth. Support those media outlets that provide that depth. Don’t let the complexities of today kill the truth.

In a sense, informed people today need to create their own news mosaic, piecing together reports and sensible analysis so as to be their own editors. 

One thing citizens should avoid is to dismiss all news media as corrupt and unworthy of consumption. The public needs press surrogates to deliver information it can’t get for itself. Dismiss the extreme messengers, but do get informed through multiple sources that are determined worthy of citizen eyeballs and clicks.

Even with the flaws of present day news organizations, one thing clearly not needed is any effort for the government to referee or attempt to impose fairness.

President Trump has often protested what he perceives as negative reporting and recently tweeted that “unfair news coverage…should be tested in courts.” The constitutional framers knew government-imposed fairness was a bad idea and hence, the First Amendment was established.

The citizenry must sort journalistic fairness out for itself, find it where it can, and acknowledge the impossibility that reporters can magically create an exact copy of reality.

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter, and as a political media consultant.