July 2017Spectacle

How to get the Real Straight News in the Alternative Fact Era

Just because it's published in print or posted in a news website doesn't mean it's straight news. By straight, I mean a news story that answers factually, with named sources, the who, what, when, where, why, and how of something that has happened.

As a responsible journalist of more than 30 years covering economic matters, I am concerned that we risk dismissing too much or too little, becoming a malleable, information-deprived, and ultimately undemocratic society. The antidote is a clear grasp of the kinds of publications and news outlets there are and the variety of content they carry. What follow are four questions to consider:

1. Is it news or opinion?

I already described news briefly. It contains facts that you didn't know, that's why it is news; otherwise it would be "olds." The facts are buttressed with statements from sources whose names and reason to know is given or documented (today, on the web, a good news medium will offer a link to the actual document).

Usually, news stories are not written in the first person; no real reporter expresses personal thoughts or feelings about news. A cleaned up version of an old but still reliable rule about reporting goes: If you fornicate with elephants, you should not cover the circus.

Opinion, on the other hand, is, at best, a guess, sometimes reasonable and sincerely held, sometimes not, often trotting out carefully selected facts that are often out of context, in order to prove what things should or should not be, or how they "really" are. Usually it is offered with the aim of convincing others that the writer or speaker is right. Moreover, the opinionator is usually at least mildly involved with some of the circus animals.

The person offering an opinion is trying to convince you to vote for someone, support a particular policy, political party, or religion. Sometimes it is a veiled form of advertising, to get you to subscribe to a publication or watch a certain TV station or go to a certain website, or buy something else.

In between news and opinion sits news analysis, often called a news feature. The world is complex and sometimes news requires the reader, listener, or viewer to understand its background. Journalists sometimes write or present pieces that are not, strictly speaking, news.

This piece is news analysis. It is about telling news from opinion and rumor; in this case, its validity rests on the author's occupational credentials as a journalist; in another case, it might be that the reporter is in Cairo and you are not. The aim is to provide background to news.

What makes these three difficult to distinguish is that many journalists seem to want to write novels or plays and so many opinionators want to make believe they are journalists. Some, I plead guilty, like to be mildly humorous.

2. Is the newspaper, website, or other medium a reputable source of information?

Let's qualify "reputable."

Most of the U.S. news media are by and large corporate enterprises whose purpose is to use news as the wrapper for advertising. Even The New York Times has to sell Macy's lingerie displaying full page ads with scantily clad young women the retail chain thinks will do the trick. Ever read or hear an expose of an advertiser in a newspaper or broadcast? No, and you never will, unless it is something so egregious that it cannot be ignored.

Without a doubt also, no U.S. journalism medium is objective, even though it pretends to be. Mainstream commercial publications and broadcasting (including cable and internet-borne radio and television) have ideological constraints. On the whole, they cater to the broad public view that capitalism is the "natural" economic system, that the U.S. Constitution has produced the best form of government in the world, and, even though the notion is hotly disputed by Canadians and Latin Americans, that the United States is "America."

These constraints take a very different form in Britain, where I worked briefly in my early career. In fact, British newsrooms have long had a creature known as the subeditor, a job title for the person in charge of protecting the newspaper's "line." Everyone in Britain knows that The Guardian is a lefty newspaper and The Times was always a Tory paper, even before Australian hyper-conservative news media mogul Rupert Murdoch purchased it. The facts be damned.

Actually, facts are hard to publish in Britain. The government may drop a D-notice on any journalist and legally command utter silence on any particular matter on national security grounds. Moreover the particulars of any matter likely to come before a court may not be legally reported until ascertained as fact before a judge. This is to say nothing of guilty-until-proven-innocent U.K. libel laws. But I digress.

In training new reporters, I have always taught them that there is no such thing as objectivity, although there is such a thing as fairness. If you ask the Republican, you have to ask the Democrat. If you ask management, you have to ask labor.

With all those caveats, a reputable news medium is one that consistently and predominantly reports straight news firsthand. Make sure you go to those.

3. What sort of writing or speech or video is this?

Newspapers have sections. The front page and most of the first section is usually straight news, with some news analysis. There's an editorial page with anonymous opinions offered by the newspaper, letters to the editor, and an op-ed (opposite the editorial) page. Before Murdoch owned it, The Wall Street Journal had a scrupulously observed operational "wall" between the reporters and editors who covered news and the editorial and op-ed staff, columnists, and guest opinion writers.

Other sections offer different approaches to reality that aren't, strictly speaking, straight news. The sports section assumes some knowledge of sports and can be extremely well written but largely apolitical. Business sections assume that the private profit motive is sacrosanct. Comics are fiction, although I will risk dating myself to say that in the Watergate era, "Doonesbury" often seemed to beat the reporters by going intuitively where the facts were lacking.

Radio and television offer more limited forms of information. For one thing, reading is a far faster way to absorb information than hearing, so more facts are easily gained from print or web news than from radio in the same amount of time. For another, the camera always offers a limited and focused view, not what the viewer would perceive if he or she were there; so, no, a picture is not worth a thousand words when it comes to facts, only feelings.

Which brings me to something you may have observed; if you haven’t, watch for it. Have you ever noticed how often broadcast reporters ask an event participant or spokesperson, “How do you feel about that”? I will never forget the press conference at which I saw a TV reporter ask that concerning unemployment figures. It’s the go-to question for broadcast folks, whom we print people often call “Twinkies” (because they’re blond on the outside and fluffy on the inside).

In fact, most broadcast news people are not journalists at all. They read news clearly and, if on TV, they look appealing. The people who dig facts and write them up, the real journalists, are usually off-camera and off-air because their voices and looks don't meet a certain standard. Anchors are notoriously unconnected to newsgathering.

Marshall McLuhan already taught us all we need to know about print and broadcast news outlets. The latter are "hot" media because they tend to evoke feeling more than thinking.

4. Is it credible or merely what I agree with?

Just because I am a socialist it doesn't mean that everything I write is factual or true. I can write that no real democracy can exist until the means of production are under social rather than private control until I am blue in the face, but we'll have to wait and see until that happens to call that a fact. It is a theory I happen to believe is true; still, it's not a fact and I can't in good conscience report it as news.

Is every publication or radio or TV program that espouses socialist views credible and automatically factual and therefore its news credible? Certainly not. Sometimes I cringe when I read badly researched pieces in The Guardian, whose good lefty point of view I share.

This point is more easily understood when it is Rush Limbaugh we're talking about. Or a man in the White House by the name of Trump, who incidentally talks a lot about "fake news." However, listener, reader, or viewer beware: Occasionally, even Limbaugh and Trump have been known to state facts.

This question is especially important when handling the non-news material spewed by the vast commentariat from the left and right. We can be just as misled by dismissing or heeding Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow based on our personal predispositions.

In 2016, as the Bernie Sanders phenomenon was gaining steam in the primaries, the Democratic Party failed to heed Maddow's warning that Democratic primary voter turnout was continuing its historic pattern of decline, while the Republican turnout had dramatically spiked.

So don't assent or lend credence to something just because you instinctively agree or disagree. Except when I say it. I am always right and truthful.

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