An article published by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, whose mission is to advance and elevate journalism, describes an industry that has lost its way.
It quotes a Committee of Concerned Journalists study supporting “basic charges about the standards of American journalism and whether the press is in the business of reporting facts or something else.”
The article offered as evidence “the explosion of unsourced or poorly sourced stories, opinion pieces, judgmental speculation and dire predictions.” Journalists seemed to be “first drawing conclusions, then chasing the facts to support them.”
The author names three changes that have helped bring the press to its state of seriously challenged credibility: the law authorizing special prosecutors “with a virtual unlimited hunting license,” the law permitting sexual harassment suits in federal court, and journalism’s shift in focus from being a watchdog over governance to an attack dog bent on “disclosing defamatory information about public officials.”
That a study and analysis made two decades ago sounds so fresh and timely today suggests not much has changed in journalism, at the national level at least.
This 1998 article on coverage of President Bill Clinton shows that accusations of media bias and its damage to journalism’s crucial service to the functioning of democracy are neither new nor confined to one party or ideology.
What is new and unsettling is that national media seem to have revived the 19th century practice of open partisan advocacy, managing coverage to predominantly appeal to one group or another. The national market is so vast that an audience of intense and loyal partisans is still big and very lucrative.
Regional and local markets, however, are typically too small to divide, so their media need to serve and appeal to the whole audience. The Press coverage area split evenly in the 2016 presidential election. That reduces the market pressure on the newspaper to be partisan and to deviate from journalistic standards — for example, we have severely restricted the use of unnamed sources throughout my 37 years here. I think our market position also puts our readers, editors and reporters in a better position to understand media bias.
Those seeking power or to maintain their power will always try to co-opt journalists by manipulating their desire to do good, to make a difference in life. Political foes aren’t just opposed but vilified. Self-serving partisan goals are portrayed as morally necessary. In this environment, the desire of some journalists to heroically expose and counter evil can be used to enlist them in a partisan cause.
Journalists inevitably defend the behavior described in the Nieman Reports article by veteran journalist John Herbers as justified this time. And in truth, individual journalists may believe or even know that they are not aligned with a particular political party or ideology.
But to American society, which loses the credible coverage it needs to oversee its self-government, it doesn’t matter. If the media duck walks, swims and quacks with perceived bias, it devalues the public discourse and makes it more difficult for society to advance.
The principles and standards for journalists to avoid bias and keep their work constructive have been known for decades. Herbers mentions some, including “insisting that reporters adhere strictly to the old-fashioned rules for closing the gate on poorly sourced stories” and “the traditional practice of finding the facts before making a judgment.”
Principles and standards depend, though, on journalists adhering to them. They’ll do so more consistently when they better understand their unique place in the body politic.
The fundamental function of journalists is to gather information and deliver it to people who can’t or don’t want to get it themselves. This differs sharply from their secondary role as analysts and advocates, which is legitimate only as long as it is clearly labeled and segregated from news reporting.
When journalists get stories and report back to a community, they serve as the community’s eyes and ears for much that is important to everyday life. The service is comparable to what actual eyes and ears do for a person.
People depend on the reports of journalists to develop the community, connect to it and feel secure in being part of it. They must have credible media because they have an existential need to see the world around them as it actually is and live their lives accordingly.
Bias distorts not just what journalists report but what they see. It undermines their service to the community, causing their reports to be misleading and incomplete.
When journalists come to understand their community as a living social organism with themselves as an important part of its senses, they’ll know their solemn duty lies in seeing and reporting straightforwardly and clearly. Only then will they be as credible and dependable to society as their own eyes and ears are to themselves, and the ugly duckling will become the noble swan that enables people to fully engage the world and move forward.
Kevin Post is editorial page editor.