Monday, March 04, 2019

News media need to keep explaining how they work; many people don't understand the 3 types of information media

By Al Cross, Director and Professor
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

At last week's Knight Media Forum, conservative author and commentator Charlie Sykes offered considerable wisdom. Two points stood out for me: The news media need to do a better job of explaining what they do, and how they do it; and they are often too imprecise with terminology. We need to say "We are journalists, this is media; we are not the same thing."

The proliferation of media has left many Americans confused about what journalism is, or what it is supposed to be. That was driven home by a Reuters-Ipsos poll taken in December for Columbia Journalism Review. It found that 60 percent of Americans (54 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans) believe reporters are sometimes or very often paid by their sources. The question may have been suggestive, but when even a substantial share of Americans don't understand a fundamental principle of journalism, we're in trouble.

Typically, journalists have explained their craft in high-flown language about dedication to truth and service to democracy. We need to espouse those aspirational values, but we also need simpler points that are easier to understand and more likely to be believed -- lines that can fit on a bumper sticker and an elevator speech.

Here's a bumper sticker, aimed at reminding people that someone has to pay for journalism.

Here's an elevator speech about what journalism is, or should be:

We practice journalism, which reports facts. To do that, we verify information, or we attribute it to someone else. That is called the discipline of verification, and it is the essence of the news media. There are two other types of information media: social media, which have no discipline, much less verification; and strategic media, which try to sell you something: goods, services, ideas, politicians, causes, beliefs, etc. 
Newspapers once relied on one form of strategic media, advertising, for most of their income. Today, social media get more of the ad money, so newspapers must get more income from the only other reliable place they can get it: their readers, in the form of subscriptions or single-copy sales. As you might guess, we prefer subscribers, so we hope to earn your respect and loyalty. 
How do we do that? By being honest and straightforward about our business. 
That means we must separate fact from opinion, reserving our own views for the editorial page. Of course, our views have some influence over what news we choose to cover, so if you think we’re not covering what should be covered, or have failed to separate fact from opinion, or make another mistake, we want you to tell us.

There's more; you can read the rest in my latest monthly column for the National Newspaper Association, which suggests that news media keep such an explanation on their websites as a button labeled “How We Work,” and that newspapers run shorter versions of it in print every day, usually on the editorial page. A longer version could be a letter from the editor, ideally using timely local examples. If we demand transparency from officials and institutions, we must practice it ourselves.

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