It happened again. Barely a week into 2011, an otherwise respected news outlet broke a major story by reporting that a U.S. Congresswoman in Arizona had been shot “and killed.” Within minutes of the report, others followed suit and the instant news of the “assassination” spread around the world. Though he claimed reporters had confirmed the “fact” with state officials on the scene, the organization’s chief editor was later forced to apologize for the error, which thank God, was not true.
At the same time on the other side of the world—in Australia, to be exact, where I was visiting in-laws—record-breaking floods consumed the local news coverage. Though headlines of the Arizona horror dominated front pages for a day (i.e., “Bloody Spangled Banner” or “Hatred, Anger and Bigotry in U.S. Rampage”), it was the constant updates of flash floods and torrential rains that locals cared about. Warnings were issued through the media of which towns to evacuate, fundraising efforts were televised for the Queenslanders whose homes were lost, and forecasts were announced along with locations where people could receive immediate help.
As one who both studies and practices journalism, I find the coverage of these stories instructive for the new year. Of course, with today’s technological tools, the news landscape has become a 24/7 tsunami of information, a virtual force to be reckoned with—albeit an enormously complex one. One day it can jump the gun (pun intended) while the next it can aid a storm victim. It can enlighten citizens, and it can destroy careers. It can inspire and dishearten readers. Coupled with current economic pressures, ratings wars and instant access, journalism’s very mission—to provide people the information they need to be self-governing—can be both its success and its demise.
Granted, bad journalism is hardly news.
A record of misinformation lines the halls of newspaper history, from the front-page story of Dewey’s presidential election (Truman won) to last summer’s debacle of a U.S. agriculture worker’s out- of-context speech on race. The examples of faulty journalism are many.
But journalism has always been a human effort, with imperfect reporters gathering facts and admittedly not always getting them right—though most I know certainly try to get them right. Admittedly, though, the pressure to produce stories in today’s content-hungry climate can also mean a decrease in the discipline of verification. So, it’s not hard to understand how today’s journalists—and their infotainment cousins—might succumb to technology’s tyranny of the urgent. It’s also not hard to understand why folks complain about the state of today’s reporting.
Still, if I had to choose between flawed journalism and no journalism at all, I’d take the “lame-stream” media any day. Why? Because we can’t survive without news. Simple as that. Democracy fails without reporters. Humans are wired to know, and the press serves, reflects and consequently, helps define a community, and often a country—flaws and all.
Imagine what would have happened, for instance, had television not brought images of black children being hosed by white sheriffs into American homes during the Civil Rights Movement? Or if Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches had not been broadcast or reprinted in newspapers around the globe? Or if the duplicity of certain political leaders, government officials or corporate executives around the globe and throughout history had not been investigated by tenacious reporters?
I might not win many points here, but I think the press has done more good than harm by its dogged pursuit of truth. More human rights violations have been addressed and personal lives improved than not because of a free press. Do reporters have agendas? Sure. Are they completely objective in their reporting? Of course not. Could their coverage be more thorough? Absolutely. The integrity of the vocation demands it and good reporters can—and often do—produce stories that reflect both unbiased methods of reporting and hard earned excellence in truth-telling.
Which is why I’m hoping for a happy news year in 2011. Not happy as in fewer stories of wars or shootings or disasters. But news that helps a community care about displaced families, like I saw in Australian papers; where readers and viewers realize their lives are better for the information they’ve received; where facts are verified by credible sources, and where loyalty to citizens takes precedence over loyalty to advertisers or agendas. I’m hoping for the kind of news that makes veteran reporters fall asleep at night satisfied for work well done and makes citizens actually glad to have it. It’s news in context, relevant, timely and clear. It might not be entirely right the first time. But at least we’ll have access to it so we can draw our own conclusions.