Confessions of a journalist

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

I’m going to let you in on a secret: There is no media conspiracy.

Certainly there’s not one in Little Rock, where I spend a lot of my time, and I’m pretty sure not elsewhere, either. Bigwigs with CNN, Fox News, and the New York Times do not gather in a smoky room to decide what to propagandize and what to hide from the American people.

What there are, are tendencies. And I’m going to confess to some of them.

We journalists often suffer from a herd mentality. We chase after the same people, sometimes literally. We choose what to cover based on what other journalists cover. We worry too much about what other journalists think.

We’re too close to the people we cover, and not close enough to you. We try to keep our distance from the politicians – they’re not our friends – but sometimes we like them, which shows in our reporting. Sometimes, in fact, we take jobs working for them, as I have twice. If we don’t like them, it can affect our reporting as well.

Being part of an insider culture affects our priorities. Who’s up, who’s down – it becomes too important to us, so we’re writing about the latest poll while you want to know about what’s actually in the Common Core.

We’re often in too big of a hurry. There’s pressure to get stories on the web or on the air before others do. In some ways this is good, because consumers get the news fast and because it forces reporters to get to the point quickly. But it also leads to mistakes and shallow reporting.

It also weds us to writing formulas. A story often is composed of a lead (spelled “lede,” for some reason), a few explanatory paragraphs, a quote from one side, a quote from the other, and then a rewrite of yesterday’s story beneath it.

We’re biased. Of course we are. Everyone has a way of looking at the world, and that includes journalists (and readers and viewers). Most journalists are liberal, though that’s not necessarily so in Arkansas.

Journalists often try to overcome their biases, but sometimes not hard enough. Sometimes those biases are obvious, but sometimes they show up in more subtle ways based on what’s important to us. For example, I really care about the national debt, so if there’s an opportunity, I’ll work it into an article, perhaps by pointing out that it’s grown from $1 trillion in 1980 to $18 trillion now. See how I did that?

Here’s a big one: We’re dependent on our advertisers. We provide a service that you, the consumer, expect to be free or very cheap. Advertisers are who really pay for our time and expenses, and that leads to compromises. Some things don’t get reported. Many journalists may be liberal, but big business rarely is.

So why would you trust anything you read in this newspaper after reading this column? Judge it by its own merits. Read the front page stories from beginning to end, and you’ll probably find most are presented fairly and objectively. Flawed human beings produce them, but nobody wants to be called a hack, and there are processes and pressures that encourage balance. That probably can’t be said for some guy’s internet blog.

The media is governed by what governs most industries in America: competition. On the negative side, the winners of this competition are often those best able to get news consumers’ attention through sheer loudness and by appealing to their biases and fears. On the plus side, news providers compete to be the first and best at informing the public about important things.

That’s why stories like Hillary Clinton’s emails are reported – so people can decide for themselves if they want to to vote for her. In fact, the media has covered in depth many stories that have made it less likely she will be elected: Benghazi, Whitewater, and, of course, Monica Lewinsky. You think you don’t like the mainstream media? Clinton probably hates it. If there’s a conspiracy to elect her, it’s an inept one.

News consumers today have access to enormous amounts of information, some of it very bad and some of it very good. When you have enough time and interest, you often can watch the actual speech, study the actual report, or read the actual bill.

When you don’t, there’s the media’s summary, flawed as it may be. There’s no conspiracy among reporters, but they have many tendencies. Be aware of them. I am.

4 thoughts on “Confessions of a journalist

  1. “If there’s a conspiracy to elect her, it’s an inept one.”

    Always a gem in there!

    Incidentally, have you read William McGowan’s _Coloring the News_? It’s on my Honors Comp reading list and never fails to generate some passionate discussion.

    Happy Labor Day.

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