Sunday Extra: Nothing fake about news reporting

Sunday Extra: Nothing fake about news reporting


Every journalism critic is right at least some of the time. On any given day you can find bias, superficiality, inaccuracy, partisanship, sensationalism, and, increasingly, fake news.

In this time of upheaval and divisiveness, how do you know whether to trust what you see in the news?

Here are some tips from a retired journalist.

First, pay more attention to reporters than to columnists and editorial writers. Reporters are the ones who attend the meetings and press conferences, interview people, ferret out documents and witness events. They're closer to the source. Most columnists and editorial writers, valuable as they are, interpret stories reported by others, and do so with an intentional slant. Overdependence on them serves you the slant with the news, like Thai or Szechuan sauce on the stir-fry.

Another suggestion: Don't give up on mainstream media. Reporters are the independent-minded bedrock of journalism, and the mainstream is where the reporters are.

A third tip: Get used to the fact that there's no such thing as value-free, unbiased news.

Sociologist Herbert Gans found that mainstream journalism, like the American public in general, is biased toward democracy, capitalism, individualism, moderatism, small-town pastoralism, and America's importance in the world.

These values are widely supported, but they constitute value judgments nonetheless. Journalism focuses on them, especially when they conflict with each other.

So how can you gauge the trustworthiness of a news story? As a reader, you should expect factual accuracy, prompt correction of mistakes, good-faith efforts to get all sides of a controversy, and labeling of opinion pieces. You should be able to tell who wrote a story and where the information came from.

You shouldn't expect to get everything you need to know. That's what libraries are for.

What about anonymous sources? They're valuable, but they lessen the story's credibility. Reporters, like readers, prefer named sources, but anonymity is sometimes the only way to get the information. Journalists do get things wrong. Sometimes they find only what they're looking for. Sometimes they herd. They're under stress from deadlines and community pressures. They burn out.

But journalism is more than just a job. Its culture honors evolving standards of excellence and discourages factual error, partisanship and self-interest. In mainstream media, making stuff up is usually a career-ending mistake.

What's ahead? President Trump may be good for journalism. With so much at stake, Americans are becoming eager news consumers.

The New York Times gained 514,000 digital-only subscribers in election-year 2016. Journalism school enrollment shot up after Watergate. We'll likely see it do so again.

Urbana resident John Palen is a retired journalist and journalism educator.

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billbtri5 wrote on April 19, 2017 at 11:04 am

...reporters is the issue exactly...when's the last time a news show cut to go to a reporter in the field, other than in the WH...

..6 people sitting at a table talking about President Trump is not "news" as I remember it...

John Palen wrote on April 23, 2017 at 12:04 pm

Absolutely right, Billbtri5. The six people around the table are dealing with the chronic problem of TV news networks -- Time to kill and nothing real to report because they are in the studio instead of out pounding the pavement.

One paragraph in my piece that the N-G cut, for space reasons I'm sure, points out that the New York Times has a news staff of about 1,400, and the Washington Post and LA Times about half that. That represents a lot of reporters.