Terry McLaughlin: A tall order for 2021
I recently saw a cartoon in which a man was reading a newspaper and his wife commented that the paper was awfully thin. The man’s response was “Well, they used to print both sides of the news.”
As we plunge ahead into 2021, perhaps some of today’s journalists could use a refresher course on the basic tenets of good journalism, as many in modern media seem to have lost their understanding of the difference between reporting and editorializing.
Almost 20 years ago, on my son’s first day of his Editing and Writing class at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, he made the following notes: “What makes something newsworthy? The consequence and impact to readers, timeliness, prominent people, human interest, and proximity. And why do people read it? It has a good lead, something to capture attention with concise, accurate, fair and balanced information. Really good reporting is in following up, researching, making linkages, and being enterprising. A good reporter has to be curious, thorough, attentive, ambitious, resourceful, passionate, cooperative, honest, flexible, talented and ethical.”
Two weeks later, his class notes reflect a discussion of ethics in journalism: “Never make up quotes; never doctor them. This compromises our integrity. Always, it comes back to balance. Get all sides, all angles, and resist anonymous sources …. If it’s wrong, only you are to blame.”
This was sound advice that, if followed, could go a long way toward changing the public’s perception of media personalities today as untrustworthy, biased, or agenda-driven. A true reporter, as opposed to an opinion or advocacy writer, reports the news. He or she is not part of the story and the reader or viewer should not know the personal biases of the writer or reporter.
The objective of today’s major media in the United States should not be to guard, protect, judge or defend one political party or the other, but to report news and events in the most factual manner possible, using a multitude of identifiable sources, and following information wherever it may lead.
A true reporter will leave the opinions to the editorial pages where they belong.
William Randolph Hearst developed the nation’s largest newspaper chain and media company, and he had no shortage of advice or confidence about how to create his empire-building brand of journalism. In a 1933 letter to his editors, he instructed them to:
“Have a good exclusive news feature as often as possible. When a big story must get in all the papers, try to have notably the best account in your paper. Make the paper thorough. Print all the news. Get all the news into your office and see that it gets into the paper. Condense it if necessary … but get it in.
“Make your departments complete and reliable so that the reader will know that he can find a thing in your paper and that he can find it right. … Don’t scold and forever complain and attack in your news columns. Leave that to the editorial page.
“Be fair and impartial. Don’t make a paper for Democrats or Republicans, or independent leaguers. Make a paper for all the people and give unbiased news of all creeds and parties. Try to do this in such a conspicuous manner that it will be noticed and commented upon.
“Please be accurate. Compare statements in our paper with those in other papers, and find out which are correct. Discharge reporters and copy readers who are persistently inaccurate.
“Don’t allow exaggeration. It is a cheap and ineffective substitute for real interest. Reward reporters who can make the truth interesting, and weed out those who cannot.
“Make your headlines clear and concise statements of interesting facts. … Don’t allow copy readers to write headlines that are too smart to be intelligible. … Don’t repeat unnecessarily. Don’t serve up the story in the headlines and then in the introduction and then in the box. Plunge immediately into the interesting part of the story.
“Please sum up your paper every day and find wherein it is distinctly better than the other papers. If it isn’t distinctly better, you have missed that day. Lay out plans to make it distinctly better the next day. If you cannot show conclusively your own paper’s superiority, you may be sure the public will never discover it.”
In Russia there are two main sources of news: Pravda, which means truth, and Izvestia, which means news. A joke often repeated in the old Soviet Union was that there was no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia.
If American news media today followed even half of William Randolph Hearst’s instructions to his editors, it would no longer be in the position to be the brunt of similar jokes.
I may be only an opinion writer on the editorial page, but my wish for 2021 is that serious news reporters in our media will stop providing our citizens, on both sides of the political spectrum, reasons to doubt their honesty and credibility, and that they will simply inform the public of facts and events in an unbiased manner — providing the listener or reader with enough broad and accurate information to draw their own conclusions.
A tall order indeed, but one worth pursuing.
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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