Journalism 101

MAGGIE McCONNAHA | OPINION COLUMNIST

When I was fourteen, I took an Intro to Journalism course at my rural, public high school. Before we began to write news stories—to brainstorm them even—we learned the history of journalism and its purpose. Our very first lesson was that one of the media’s most important practices is to act as a public watchdog on the government. As long as the United States has embraced the freedom of the press (1787), private publications have used investigative reporting to uncover scandal, malpractice and simply the everyday goings-on of the government. Up until recently, the media and the government have had a respectful, if occasionally tenuous relationship.

One of the reasons many have begun to blame the press for fake or distorted news is the belief that only recently all publications have become politically biased. However, the media, originally the printed press, has supported candidates and political parties for decades– most notably since the National Intelligencer supported President Thomas Jefferson in 1800. What may make this modern period different is the onslaught of news from every media source: printed news, cable television news, online periodicals and friends’ social media networks. Just as we have been trained to feel defensive, however hypocritically, when another person holds an opinion separate from ours, we are now outraged when a private, media organization panders to their own audience for an increase in profit.

Of course, this questions the ethics of journalism versus the ethics of the consumer. Is it ethical to publish stories that distort a person’s direct quote: such as using deceptive sound bites? We are taught no. In Journalism courses, students are taught to be unbiased and balanced. We know to bring in multiple perspectives and how to respectfully write about any person without bringing in personal politics. But how easy is it to make one senator, representative or bureaucrat a laughing stock, especially if you know your audience will eat it up and predictably like you the better for it? Easy enough for it to dominate our news today.

Comedy shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show have typically liberal audiences, according to The Washington Post, while The Drudge Report and The Glenn Beck Program speak to a more conservative audience. When comparing the relative success of media that leans one way to media that attempts to stay unbiased, it becomes easy to see why publications adopt political leanings. One of the goals of published media is clearly to stay relevant: would a program like The Daily Show continue if it mocked Sen. Bernie Sanders? Would Breitbart continue to be a favorite site if suddenly it questioned President-Elect Trump?

The media understands the two-party system and the rigid support of members of each of those parties. Consistently, according to Pew Research, members of political parties have simultaneously  intensified their internal support and their opposition for the other party. That is seen not just in Congress but among citizens as well. And as opposition increases, so does a person’s want to be justified in their opinions, not challenged. As such, we consume media that reflects our political leanings and allows us to stay comfortably in our own echo chamber. And consequently, the media we support stays popular, even if it is popular because of mocking, defaming or misquoting.

The media may be the watchdog of the government, but the citizens are the watchdog of the media. If something is wrong or unfair, especially when it is clearly upholding a divisive and political agenda, it is our ethical responsibility to call that out. If you are a Democrat and you see a Republican senator wrongfully misquoted, call the news agency. If you are a Republican and you see a Democrat representative intentionally made to look incompetent, cancel your subscription. It is the fact that we allow our opinions to be shaped by untrue news and information that is wrong and unethical.

I would love to teach journalism someday to students who are just as wide-eyed and idealistic as I was at fourteen. I hope that when that day comes, years down the road, it will be clear to them that they have to write unbiased, true stories because they know that if they do not, the American people will shut them down.

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