Are we in the media to blame for bad news or are we just doing our job?

071813mediaSpend any time on discussion boards on the Internet and you find a lot of people second-guessing those of us who cover the news and look for issues to highlight each day.

Those questioning the judgment of what is or is not news raised issues this week on whether or not the emphasis on the current heat wave is really worthwhile of news coverage and/or emphasis.

“Temperatures in the mid-90s.  This is not news,” read a post Wednesday on Facebook.

Another asked:  “What’s next?  Calling cold weather in February news?”

Others in the past week have questioned news coverage of the trial of George Zimmerman in the killing of teenager Travon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Posters on discussion boards say the media over-saturated the public with stories on the trial.  Some even said the media promoted racial unrest.

Those quick to jump on the media over such issues overlook some interesting facts:  The coverage of the current heat wave concentrates on the late arrival of typical summer heat in a Spring and Summer where cool weather previously dominated and the networks that covered the Zimmerman trial reported higher than normal ratings.

Second guessing the media is popular, particularly with the growth of the Internet and the popularity of social networking sites that are often dominated with political debates.

As someone who recently celebrated his 50th year in journalism, I can — and do — agree that we can go overboard in news coverage but also find it amusing that the media has become a popular scapegoat for the ills that America and the world faces.

Depending on the source of complaints, we in the media are too liberal or too conservative, over reactionary or under reactionary, guilty of sensationalism or accused of covering up important stories.

While, as the old saying goes, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, it sometimes seems like those of us in the news business can’t please any of the people any of the time.

Back in 1965, Jim Echols, then city editor of The Roanoke Times when I started work there, told me I had six months to “piss off at least half the people in the area.”

“If you don’t,” Echols said. “I’ll fire you and find someone who will.”

As noted here before, the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko loved to quote legendary newspaperman Finley Peter Dunne, who said “it is the role of a newspaperman to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

I was lucky enough to know Royko and honored to have his friendship.  He was among a handful of newspapermen who taught me a lot when I was a young, headstrong young reporter.

“This is not a popularity contest,” he once told me. “If you want to be popular, find something else to do.”

He was, of course, right.  Those of us in the media are often the reporters of bad news and people tend to blame the messenger when they don’t like what they hear, see or read.

But those who are quick to blame the media for the problems we face overlook the sad fact that we don’t create the situations but it is frequently our job to report those problems.

Often, those who claim our news is slanted don’t like what we report because they want news that is slanted towards their own biases and points of view. I’ve found that if a story is slammed by both sides of an issues, the reporter who wrote it did his or her job correctly.

It’s been that way for a long time.  In 1976, a common mantra from the Republican Party was that the media, as a whole, was biased towards the left and Democrats.  Yet in the Presidential election that year, an overwhelming majority of newspapers endorsed Republican Gerald Ford for re-election over Democrat Jimmy Carter.

So was the bulk of the media really biased towards the left?  And, given the outcome of the Presidential election — which Carter won — was such bias — if it actually existed — influential?

The answer to both questions is, of course, a resounding “no.”

Do such facts matter to those with preconceived notions about the media?

Of course not.

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3 thoughts on “Are we in the media to blame for bad news or are we just doing our job?”

  1. I criticize the media (especially television) regularly. You cannot defend any morning “news” show against the charge that an inordinate amount of coverage goes to celebrity scandals and similar fluff in lieu of “real” news. I think the bigger problem with media these days is people can tailor their news consumption to fit their political and social views.

    Liberals have MSNBC, Daily Cos, and The Huffington Post while conservatives have Fox News, Drudge Report, and Rush Limbaugh (both sides have hundreds of other options as well). When people get the great majority of their information from these biased sources it makes it difficult for them to accept news that doesn’t jibe with their political viewpoint. You getting called biased for reporting the FACT that our current governor has abused his position by accepting gifts is just one result of this trend.

  2. Guess I’ve been involved with journalism all my adult life. It began when at 19 I graduated from the U.S. Navy’s “journalist school” and was sent to the fleet to provide info on military issues to journalists. Later, I worked as a reporter for a daily newspaper and eventually retired as a corporate communication manager for a large company.

    Through all those years and assignments on both sides of many issues did I notice a blatant act of news bias. I can’t recall working with a journalist who didn’t try to get the story right. Yep, there were plenty of failures to understand, especially when issues were highly complex or multi-faceted or I couldn’t provide all the information for security or marketing reasons, but rarely, if ever, did I work with a real journalist that didn’t try to get it right.

    In the end, I guess reporters are just like the rest of us, human with major flaws and major strengths.

  3. The biggest problem that I have with the media is that it doesn’t deal with the issues. Instead, as Will Norton writes, it is all about celebrity scandals, murders, rapes, suicides, traffic accidents and so on, ad infinitum. Nowhere is there any analysis of what might be the underlying cause of these “news” stories. Back in the late 60s, there was a philosopher by the name of Guy Debord who had a few things to say about this phenomenon.

    As for bias? There is a well-known (or it should be well-known) phenomenon in social psychology called confirmation bias. Everyone is guilty of it. The problem with the Internet is that it becomes so much easier to fulfill that need. “Discussion boards” oust those who disagree and preach to the choir instead.

    Somehow, if we are to have a viable democracy in this country, we have to figure out a way to resolve this polarized situation we are in. While we are fighting amongst ourselves, the thieves are making off with the goods. Which is the whole point, isn’t it?

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