I have long loved journalism. My introduction to the “news,” which came as my father and I sat almost every evening in the small den in our house, watching Walter Cronkite on CBS assure the country that “that’s the way it is.” As a youngster, I was introduced to world events and even learned new vocabulary words in the course of our nightly activity. Cronkite was more than a reader of words from a teleprompter; he was a field reporter and, moreover, a wordsmith.
The American Press Institute (API) offers some insight into the journalistic vocation on the organization’s website. According to API, “News is that part of communication that keeps us informed of the changing events, issues, and characters in the world outside. Though it may be interesting or even entertaining, the foremost value of news is as a utility to empower the informed.” The site goes on to explain that “the purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”
In the book “The Elements of Journalism,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write, “The purpose of journalism is not defined by technology, nor by journalists or the techniques they employ.” Rather, “the principles and purpose of journalism are defined by something more basic: the function news plays in the lives of people.”
Therefore, news has become mutually inclusive with the political arena, the place where it is also most criticized today. Perhaps, though, as historians remind us, history is cyclical and tends to repeat itself. Hopefully, the denigration of the news is temporary, and faith in it will rebound. American journalism does, after all, have a complicated past. In the late 1800s, both William Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were progenitors of “yellow journalism,” as they propounded the notion of defending the public interest but, in earnest, promulgated sensational reporting and engaged in circulation wars.
Later, in the early 1900s, during the Progressive Era, President Theodore Roosevelt galvanized the political connection with the press, creating a Press Room in the White House after observing reporters huddling in the rain one day. News became a central focus of the Roosevelt presidency almost daily, as Teddy freely offered interviews and photo opportunities. The press responded favorably, and Roosevelt continued to enjoy genial relationships with its members, using news stories to maintain a close relationship with his middle-class base.
What makes for a good journalistic story with such a wide base? Practically anything. Conversely, is every story newsworthy? No – but a reporter can use storytelling and verification of information to make a story newsworthy. As the API says, “A good story ... does more than inform or amplify. It adds value to the topic.” It is, according to Kovach and Rosenstiel, “storytelling with a purpose.”
Are reporters expected to be without bias? No – reporters are human, and will, therefore be biased. However, an adept reporter will be objective, examining the best way to present the news and verifying information so comprehensively that personal and cultural biases will not undermine the reporting. The API sets forth the model: “The best stories are more complete and more comprehensive. They contain more verified information from more sources with more viewpoints and expertise. They exhibit more enterprise, more reportorial effort.”
Often, laypersons grumble that the media report the most “negative” news, including murder and scandal, ignoring more “positive” stories. The old journalistic aphorism “man bites dog” explains this proclivity. The more unusual an occurrence, the more likely a story is to get reported. How many stories, for instance, do we read or hear about planes that avoid crashing?
As for popular criticism against the media, my love for the journalism is one reason I cringe at hearing someone in power misuse a term such as “fake news” to discount legitimate, established news sources and, on the contrary, tout media outlets who feign opinion pieces or clearly biased propaganda as objective, irrefutable news. The difference between the two essentially boils down to being well-read and well-researched. In the days of the 24-hour news cycle and ubiquitous social media, it requires that consumers do some searching on their own, seeking out expert opinion, fact-checking, verifying by finding the same information in more than one source, and looking for established sources of information – as well as any sort of purpose or agenda or bias that may govern the philosophy of a given news outlet.
When it comes to discerning authentic news outlets from genuinely “fake” ones, we should also rely as much – or more – on reading our news, not viewing it merely on television or online from some uninitiated, unverified shared social media post. We should, further, look beyond “clickbait,” or ad-heavy, publications to long-established news outlets that offer denser versions of news stories, including background information – the sort of information or balance that “headline” operations, especially those in this 24-hour news cycle that has become so pervasive in our culture for the past couple of decades or so, including Fox News and CNN, tend to omit.
Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT-Martin. She will be serving as a Tennessee Education Leaders Fellow this summer for the Tennessee Department of Education in Nashville and has worked as an independent assessment consultant and educational curriculum writer. She enjoys being a downtown Corinth resident