OP-ED: Maybe We, The Media, Can Do Better
Jan 01, 2018 04:51PM ● Published by Jon Bishop
Many Americans rightly recognize President Donald Trump’s frequent use of the phrase “fake news” for what it is: an assault on press freedoms.
But not so fast. Americans don’t get to talk about Trump’s problems with the press until they get their own houses in order.
I spent four and a half years working as a local reporter, covering various beats: local government, features, crime, breaking news. The public, for the most part, was good to work with. They understood I had a job to do and would try to help me do that job—except, of course, when they were politicians and had things they didn’t really want to get the public’s attention. (Such is the dance of the relationship between reporters and elected officials. But I digress.)
But what I noticed during my time in the business is that family, friends, or people I ran into on the job had almost conspiratorial beliefs about how journalism works. They believed reporters made up stories whole hog. Others said employees of different publications colluded to push stories about certain people or certain events. Whatever they suggested, the underlying belief was that all journalists are dishonest and nefarious.
And the data back this up. A 2016 Gallup poll—taken, of course, before Trump was elected—shows only 32 percent of Americans trust the media.
A giveaway is how often people talk about narratives. Many assume reporters and editors team up to create them. For the public, the narrative is code for “biased writing.” But here’s what it actually means: storytelling. Of course a reporter will come away from something he is covering and write about it in a certain way. That’s because he’s a unique individual who can tell a story as only she can tell it. Also, a reporter’s job is to take the most interesting thing he witnessed at whatever he was covering and write about it in a readable, exciting way. That means certain things have to go. As an editor told me once, if someone pulls a gun at a city council meeting, the story isn’t the city council meeting. It’s that a guy pulled a gun at a city council meeting.
People don’t seem to realize reporters go into the office, collect information from sources or on their own, write stories, and then go home. It’s a job, just like other jobs. There are managers and employees and time cards and vacations. Yes, it’s a fun job, one that allows you to rub elbows with big shots and gives you access to important events, but it’s a job. And contrary to what many people believe, it’s one that doesn’t pay well at all. The talking heads making six figures aren’t the norm. The veteran local reporter just scrapping by is.
And here’s the thing: most of the reporters I worked with (and I’m including myself here) are absolutely petrified of mistakes. I know I used to wake up terrified that I’d have to write a correction. I’d check my email, see no one had written to me, and then I’d breathe a sigh of relief. I remember sharing this with another reporter, and she said she often did the same things. Why is this? It’s because reporters understand that bad information spreads like crazy—and if you got something wrong, then you’d be responsible for its spread.
Perhaps the press could do better. Maybe newspapers and television stations could include breakdowns of how stories are put together. I understand this is somewhat patronizing to readers and viewers, but I don’t know how else we can get the public to realize journalism is work, not magic.
Then, maybe then, people’s minds wouldn’t drift toward the conspiratorial when they think about journalism, and maybe we wouldn’t have a president so fond of calling the news fake. After all, like any good current or former celebrity who is desperate for relevance and adulation, he’s just trying to copy what the public is already doing.
(Jon Bishop is a resident of Wilmington and a long-time local journalist. His byline has appeared in the Town Crier, The Lowell Sun and the Sentinel & Enterprise.)