Is It Time To Let Journalists Simply Be?

Here's the Thing - Commentary by Jaci Clement, Fair Media Council

The Public’s Pining for Credibility & How to Recognize It When They See It

When a note from The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof landed in my inbox, as it did on Oct. 2, of course I opened it.

Yet less than two minutes later, my right eyebrow shot up. It wasn’t what Kristof had written that set off my internal alarm system, but rather, what he was asking me to do: Subscribe to The New York Times.

And that, right there, made me long for the days when the business suits weren’t allowed on the editorial side of the building.

It must’ve been someone in a suit who decided it would be a good idea for one of the NYT’s most trusted voices — a trust founded on more than 30 years of work shining light in places around the globe where little to none existed — to peddle subs, a non-newsroom function if there ever was one. Maybe several suits were involved and, most likely, a conference table. Typical crime scene, to be sure.

It’s the new age of news, where everyone is a brand, a personality, an internet star, an entrepreneur, a talk show host, a LinkedIn Influencer, an author and a celebrity guest judge. Add in more than 100,000 Twitter followers and a clothing line and you’ve got it all goin’ on.

Except one thing: Where’s the trust?

Tonight, my newsfeed is filled with stories about CNN anchor Chris Cuomo in a twitter spat over something POTUS related; what weird thing Megan Kelly did on her Today show today (with the added bonus of what she was wearing while she did it), and the reasons, real and imagined, for The New York Times rolling out a new social media policy to curtail situations like the one Cuomo just got wrapped up in.

Is it any wonder the public is so frustrated with what’s become of the American news media?

In fairness, in 2017 we’ve seen some amazing works of journalism. It’s just that the greatness gets lost in the cacophony of the nonsensical attempts to lure eyeballs, build audiences and dominate ratings.

Journalists, we’re told, follow the facts. They’re unbiased, objective and unflappable. Yes, there are many fine journalists out there. There are even more so-so journalists out there who, on occasion, stumble upon a story and turn out exemplary work. And, since we’re keeping it real, there are always a few bad apples in the barrel — the ego-driven ones, who got into the work so people would know their names and for whom self interest overrides the public interest. Yes, we’ve met them all.

Let’s focus on the real journalists. (The so-so ones will either improve, hang on or egress the building eventually, while the bad apples reap what they sow and are, therefore, not worth our time.) Let’s focus on the people working so hard to shine light on stories of importance to the human condition that they’ll follow the leads wherever they take them, sacrificing family time and holidays and normal sleep patterns in order to bring you unvarnished, often gut-wrenching, truths.

It’s the story that’s the star. The storyteller? Simply the medium through which the story is told.

Things got a little cray cray when the around-the-clock cable channels created the need for enough anchors to fill 24 hours’ worth of time, so everything got bumped up a level: entry level reporters who should have spent their formative years double checking obituary facts were suddenly on-air, while anchors with minimal news experience were now heading up their own shows.

It was an ugly, ugly time in news.

Then the internet came roaring in, upending deadlines, business models and — mon dieu — giving readers, viewers and listeners the ability to talk back. In public.

Since then, it’s been a free-for-all.

Here’s the thing: If a journalist wants to be respected for being an objective voice, then why make the rounds of talk shows, opining about the things objectively reported on earlier? Why do that? Why?

Lumped into this same bad-and-more-bad category is when news anchors, while seated behind the anchor desk, start to banter. They bring you the news, straight up and fairly, then undermine the entire effort with a few cutesy opinions on what was just reported.


It’s those kinds of things that make the viewing audience curse out loud while simultaneously searching the couch cushions for the remote control.

Lots of this, we blame on consultants. People who fly in, take a look at the product and say, do more. If some banter is good, clearly, more is better. If a rapid-fire delivery by a news reporter conveys a sense of urgency to make viewers sit up in their seats, then speak faster, look more alarmed and by all means overenunciate each and every word, even the articles.

Then the consultants fly out, and leave the news outlets to grapple with the impact of the advice they’ve taken to heart in an earnest effort to improve their product.

In the world of newspapering, it’s the columns that make people’s blood boil. In a news section built on the promise of objectivity, there you’ll find a reporter’s column, smack dab in the middle of the news. Who decided that was a good idea? The rest of the opinions are regulated to a different section far away from the actual news.

This is where it gets interesting. Inside a newsroom, readers are either complete idiots or amazingly perceptive. There’s never an in-between.

When someone in the production department decides to vary the layout, from uniform columns with justified text to text that is centered and jagged on the edges, the question is why.

The answer? To show the reader it’s not news, but rather, analysis. And to illustrate our commitment to maintaining the integrity of our news product.

OK, well, that’s all good, but how will the reader know if no one explains what this cosmic layout shift is all about?

Cue the condescending head nod, accompanied by that one incredibly special sentence, “Our readers know.”

That misunderstanding of transparency is, of course, one of the great ironies of the news business. When someone inside the newsroom errors, that information is seldom, if ever, conveyed to the news consumers. “We regret the error” is the standard company line. Who screwed up where? That’s what the people would like to know.

If the tables were turned, names would be named. Imagine a news outlet reporting on local government and discovering fraud. Names and photos, timelines, associates and possibly even family members would be named.

A fake story makes it into the news? A news outlet will own up to it, but not disclose who did what when and therefore enabled the fake news to see the light of day.

On Twitter, CNN’s Jake Tapper recently called for more transparency inside news outlets, for the sake of journalism.

Standing up and asking to be held accountable is exactly what the best in journalism does — and at the very least, should be doing. Anything less than that puts us right back into that so-so category again or worse, surrounded by the bad apples.

If any one enterprise could appreciate being called out for getting something wrong, it should be our news outlets. A zero tolerance for injustice has to be universal, not simply one-sided. Inaccuracies need to be corrected, in order for the truth to shine. Being corrected should be seen as a badge of honor: Your news. It matters.

This is what’s missing in this new age journalism. It does everything, except celebrate truth.

Let marketing take care of building circulation — leave the newsies out of that endeavor. Yes, create guidelines to protect the objectivity of journalists in all mediums, by all means.

And maybe soon it will be OK to be a journalist again? Nothing more, and certainly nothing less. Interestingly, it’s simply everything America needs.

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