The Big Question

Jaci Clement CEO & Executive Director, Fair Media Council

Jaci Clement

photo by Bob Giglione

What Every Newsroom Should Be Asking Right Now

Reporters ask questions for a living. Newsrooms craft the answers to those questions into stories, which then find their way into the public conversation. The amount of things that can and do go wrong in this process is mindboggling.

First things first, journalism is so important to the American way of life that it made it into the final draft of the Constitution. That right there would lead one to think some sort of training, license, or particular education should be necessary to become a journalist. But no. 

In that regard, it would be fairer to compare the profession to a craft, with the experienced artisans teaching the up-and-comers, guiding them through the maze of primary sourcing and fact verification, nudging them into bigger pastures where balance and fairness come into play, and holding the newbies back when they are about to burn themselves on a hot stove.

Problem is, there isn’t much in the way of training happening inside modern-day media. On paper, the artisans were classified as the most expensive category of overhead, so they were let go. Often, they were replaced with what’s known as multimedia content creators, a tech-savvy generation exalted for its ability to create interactive charts that tell the story of nothing, but since they are done with bells and whistles, they give the impression they are something.

It should come as no surprise then that news reporters are left to fend for themselves. Based on feedback from those often appearing in the news, such as spokespeople and noted experts, it’s common for reporters to show up to interviews without knowing much about why they are there, let alone why the person in front of them deserves to be in the news. The age of the untrained, general assignment reporter is running at full tilt, and we’re all the dumber for it.

In fairness, any industry suffering economic hardship operates at an incapacitated level. The difference here is news media openly displays its weaknesses; other industries have the luxury of keeping their weaknesses hidden from view. 

That’s worth remembering the next time you complain there’s nothing in the paper, or on the air. Hang in there, because things are starting to shift. Newsrooms are starting to slow things down, as posting new content every minute is becoming less of a focus. And, set against the backdrop of pandemic reporting, newsrooms now have concrete examples of how bad they are at using data and statistics correctly in stories — one study found that only a quarter of journalists surveyed felt knew how to handle numbers “very well.”

Now that weaknesses with data have come to the forefront, the next step will be a renewed emphasis on training, the need to return to beat reporting and yes, the art of asking questions.

For right now, let’s cut through the news clutter that is filling your inbox and ask the one key question that newsrooms everywhere need to ask themselves right now: Why should anyone interrupt a busy day of rebuilding a business, homeschooling kids, cooking, cleaning, shopping and disinfecting, to make time to read, watch or listen to your story?

Find the value proposition, and your audience will find your value.

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