Why ‘both-sides journalism’ is necessary for keeping the public informed, despite what some might think

Credit: eurekastreet.au

It’s unfortunate that so many people, I call them “faux experts,” think they know so much about so many things, when, in fact, they don’t.

I readily admit that there are things I don’t know much about. For example, I wouldn’t dream of telling an engineer how to design a car, bus or space vehicle. Nor would I tell a dentist how to pull a tooth. And I certainly wouldn’t instruct a surgeon in the proper way to perform an organ transplant.

Yet there are many people out there, a good number of them on Twitter, who have no problem telling journalists how to do their jobs. These people, who have neither the training nor the experience in reporting the news, believe they know more than those of us who do.

That’s not to say people can’t have their own opinions. Of course they can. I just think they need to put some thought into them and use some common sense before they knee-jerk them onto Twitter or similar platforms.

With that in mind, I figured I’d pass on some of the knowledge I gained in my nearly 30 years in the field to help clear up some of the mysteries of journalism.

First, I’ll present what virtually none of these faux experts offer: credentials.

I earned my associate of arts in journalism back in 1977, then, after taking a year off school to work in the field, I earned my bachelor of arts in journalism in 1981. I did an internship at the Los Angeles Times, and, later in my career, spent four months on loan at USA Today in Washington, D.C. Most of my career, though, was spent working for smaller, local news operations.

As a professional reporter, I attended countless meetings, including school boards, city councils, boards of supervisors and a host of others that were equally as yawn-inducing. But it was my job to let the public know what their elected officials were doing, no matter how inane and unimportant it may have seemed at the time.

Actually, though, most of what was decided at these sessions was very important because, while not earth-shattering, those decisions directly affected my readers’ lives, and they had a right to know about them.

Without going into a lengthy autobiography, which I may write someday, my reporting career also included covering cops, firefighters, schools and just about anything that came up while I was on duty.

I also spent much of my career as one type of editor or another, designing news pages, directing reporters, deciding what appeared in the paper and dealing with members of the public, whose hobby seemed to be complaining about my reporters.

It was quite a varied career, to say the least. All of that, I believe, qualifies me to discuss journalism from the point of view of someone who’s been there, done that.

One of the things I took away from my time in school came from my very first journalism textbook, which I still have, titled, “The Complete Reporter,” by Julian Harris and Stanley Johnson.

This is from Chapter 1, labeled “So You Want to Be a Journalist:”

“A journalist is a writer whose stock in trade consists of current events. As contrasted with other types of writers, who may employ imagination in their quest for reader appeal, the reporter must deal with facts.”

Now this may seem like a simple task: Just write down what people say or do and, bingo, you have a news story. In fact some of the faux experts who have commented on journalism have gone so far as to call reporters nothing more than “stenographers.” Oh, if it were only that simple.

As we’ve found out in the last four years, with our current (if you’ll excuse the expression) president, just regurgitating what someone says is not only foolish but dangerous.

Harris and Johnson continue, and I must note that the copyright date on the volume is 1965, well before women were widely accepted among the ranks of the then-male-dominated field:

“He (the reporter) records and sometimes interprets what has happened or will happen, and under certain circumstances he is permitted to give his own opinion on the event he reports. Hence, the two things basic to the journalist are facts and writing, and his two distinctive functions are gathering information and composing stories which present the information accurately and interestingly.”

Whew. There’s a lot there.

I won’t go into detail about what it takes to “gather information.” That would take an entirely different post.

Instead, let’s look at “facts.” A quick thumb to the back of the book, to the section labeled “Appendix: Journalistic Terms,” finds that the authors, for some reason, omitted the word “facts” from their list.

So, as we all do from time to time, I checked Google, which yielded the following definitions of “fact:”  “a thing that is known or proved to be true,” and, another, which is more pertinent to this discussion, “information used as evidence or as part of a report or news article.”

“Something that is known to be true.” Wow. Where do we go with that?

Here’s a fact many millions these days dispute: Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, fair and square.

Yet, to read the news, you’d think he didn’t, what with Trump and his cronies disputing the election results with no credible evidence, that is, no facts.

Basically, my point is that what are facts – or information known to be true – to one person are not facts to another. And many people, influenced by their own beliefs, would rather the media not report all sides of an issue.

Some dispute exists over what some call “both-sides journalism,” https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/both-sides-impeachment-trump.php a concept that I’ve never heard of but one that, in principle, anyway, has guided me through my career.

Trump is a huge proponent of one-sided journalism. Just look at his relationship with Fox News. As long as the network parroted his imaginings, he was OK with it.

But once it began reporting actual news – surprise, surprise – such as the fact that Biden won the election….bam, it was out of his life faster then an ex-wife or attorney general who told him something he didn’t want to hear.

Talk now is that Trump may start his own network where the concept of “both-sides journalism” will be as foreign as Melania Trump working to help children in need.

Anyway, to me, “both-sides journalism” is just basic stuff. When you report a story, you give both – or all – sides so that members of the public can be fully aware of all the facts and make their own decisions. What could be more basic than that?

To many Twitter users, and I know that really doesn’t represent a huge chunk of the population, thank God, it means something else altogether. To them, “both-sides journalism” is a derogatory term for reporters who do their jobs.

In these days of rampant misinformation being disseminated by our elected officials, it is vital that reporters hold politicians to account by doing exactly what these people disdain: presenting both sides of a story. Not only Trump’s side, for example.

But the problem isn’t only with Twitter users. More than 7 million people voted for Trump in the last election, which means they believed his dangerous and Democracy-killing lies … lies that he and his minions keep spewing.

This creates a strange situation for journalists: How do we report the news without passing along information that we know is wrong? Many people blame the media for Trump’s election because his lies were printed or broadcast.

But if journalists didn’t report what Trump and his Trumpettes said, we’d be accused of censorship and playing favorites. Sounds like a no-win situation to me.

People need to remember that, when it comes to 2016, Trump lost the popular vote by about 3 million votes, lies and all, and that it was the Electoral College that was responsible for his win. That, though, is a topic for yet another post.

So with journalists intent on reporting the truth and being fair, what’s to be done? (Fairness, by the way, is something else Twitter users have a problem with, and, that, too, is a topic for a later post.)

The main thing journalists need to do is assiduously fact check what politicians say before publishing or airing their comments. And this means that we will wind up contradicting a lot of what they say. That, in itself, will open us up to criticism for questioning our leaders. But, really, that’s what journalists are supposed to do.

I guess, generally, my solution to all this is to keep reporting exactly what is happening with no bias, keep aggressively fact-checking and hope that the public has enough common sense to work it all out.

But do I have that much faith in my fellow Americans?  To quote Kate McKinnon in a recent SNL sketch. “We don know dis.” https://youtu.be/vHdT73SbS2M

Published by Mike Sturman

I am a retired journalist with nearly 30 years in the field, during which time I was a reporter and held numerous editor positions at local newspapers and a number of magazines. After I retired, I was a sub in my local school district, then did PR for that district. I hold a Bachelor's Degree in journalism, and as for my politics, that's simple: I'm a liberal Democrat. I'm married, and my wife recently retired after 25 years as a teacher. We have one daughter, who has earned her PhD and works at a UC. Through this blog, I hope to pass on some interesting thoughts and ideas, entertain with some lighthearted posts and generally quell my pandemic-induced boredom.

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