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Monday, September 17, 2012

The News -- Does Truth Even Matter?




We live in a world where instant information is more available than ever. News about everything --from global concerns to Snooki's new baby -- beckons our attention. Internet sites, television news channels, social networks, and blogs are ablaze with words and images the instant anything deemed newsworthy happens. Many people assume that the dissemination of this glut of information is free of bias and that the news is the product of honest factual research. How incredibly wrong they are.

We all understand that bigoted, half-truths and historically inaccurate arguments should not be reported as truths. Yet, few seem to care that the news today is full of reports that stimulate viewer interest largely through sensational content often based on rumor and speculation. Bottom feeding journalists scrounge the earth for the latest titillating content.

Muckraking is nothing new. Matthew Arnold (1822--1888), British poet and cultural critic, once said, "Journalism is literature in a hurry." And, now, more than ever, news organizations are concerned with reporting the “breaking headline" and the unsubstantiated "soundbite" instead of accurate, detailed, information.

People today want entertaining content, and in fear of poor ratings, journalism has gladly bowed to that demand. We must not assume reports of the news most significant to our needs will be broadcast or printed with regularity. Rather, celebrity updates, tabloid drama, and engaging trivia gain acceptance as "important" information for the masses.

The public has long been critical of the press in several areas: In 1985, majorities said that news organizations tried to cover up mistakes, tended to favor one side on political and social issues and were influenced by the powerful.

However, in that initial survey on press performance, conducted by the Times-Mirror Center, most people (55%) said that news organizations "get the facts straight," while 34% said stories were often inaccurate.

My, how public opinion has changed.

According to the Pew Research Center (2009), Just 29% of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight, while 63% say that news stories are often inaccurate. In the initial survey in this series about the news media's performance in 1985, 55% said news stories were accurate while 34% said they were inaccurate. That percentage had fallen sharply by the late 1990s and has remained low over the last decade. (“Press Accuracy Rating Hits Two-Decade Low: Public Evaluations of the News Media: 1985-2009,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, September 14, 2009)

The research also showed only about a quarter (26%) now say that news organizations are careful that their reporting is not politically biased, compared with 60% who say news organizations are politically biased.

And the percentages saying that news organizations are independent of powerful people and organizations (20%) or are willing to admit their mistakes (21%) now also match all-time lows.

Television remains the dominate news source for the public, with 71% saying they get most of their national and international news from TV. More than 40% get most of their news on the Internet, while 33% cite newspapers. For the first time in a Pew Research Center survey, more people said they got most of their national and international news from the Internet than from newspapers.

Perhaps the question to consider is
“Does accurate news even matter to the American public
 when they lack confidence in the integrity of journalism?" 
 
We all know it should, but with statistics like these, public distrust is evident, yet people seem to be satisfied with consuming bias information. Are these people simply picking news content by its personal appeal without regard to its truth and spin? Like kids avoiding “icky vegetables,” do consumers of news now look at their full plate of information, consume what appeals to their own appetites, and leave lots of perceived “distasteful” yet potentially nourishing news untouched and, therefore, undigested?

One thing is certain: News consumption has become mobile, cross-platform and social. Pew research contends: “The rise of social media like social networking sites and blogs has helped the news become a social experience for consumers; people use their social networks and social networking technology to filter, assess, and react to news. They also use traditional email and other tools to swap stories and comment on them.” (Mathew Ingram, “News Has 'Become a Social Experience': Pew,” Project for Excellence in Journalism, March 1 2010)

However, one might question what news content is making most of the splash and how the interested public form their opinions. After all, there are roles and principles that have guided successful journalism since its beginnings, and these retain the power to restore trust with citizens who depend on the press to help them maintain a democratic society. An intelligent, informed public demands that the press adhere to strict guidelines in a search for the often elusive and frequently complicated truth.




Nine Principles of Journalism

In 1997, the Committee of Concerned Journalists, began a national conversation among citizens and news people to identify and clarify the principles that underlie journalism. After four years of research, including 20 public forums around the country, a reading of journalism history, a national survey of journalists, and more, the group released a Statement of Shared Purpose that identified nine principles. These became the basis for The Elements of Journalism, the book by PEJ Director Tom Rosenstiel and CCJ Chairman and PEJ Senior Counselor Bill Kovach.
 
Here is a list of those principles,
as outlined in the original Statement of Shared Purpose:
 
 
1. Journalism's first obligation is to the truth.

"Not truth in an absolute or philosophical sense, but it can--and must--pursue it in a practical sense. This "journalistic truth" is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation. Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information... As citizens encounter an ever greater flow of data, they have more need--not less--for identifiable sources dedicated to verifying that information and putting it in context."

2. Its first loyalty is to citizens.

"While news organizations answer to many constituencies, including advertisers and shareholders, the journalists in those organizations must maintain allegiance to citizens and the larger public interest above any other if they are to provide the news without fear or favor. This commitment to citizens first is the basis of a news organization's credibility, the implied covenant that tells the audience the coverage is not slanted for friends or advertisers. Commitment to citizens also means journalism should present a representative picture of all constituent groups in society."

3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.

"Journalists rely on a professional discipline for verifying information. When the concept of objectivity originally evolved, it did not imply that journalists are free of bias. It called, rather, for a consistent method of testing information--a transparent approach to evidence--precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work. The method is objective, not the journalist. Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment, all signal such standards. This discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment. But the need for professional method is not always fully recognized or refined. While journalism has developed various techniques for determining facts, for instance, it has done less to develop a system for testing the reliability of journalistic interpretation."

4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

"Independence is an underlying requirement of journalism, a cornerstone of its reliability. Independence of spirit and mind, rather than neutrality, is the principle journalists must keep in focus. While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform--not their devotion to a certain group or outcome. In our independence, however, we must avoid any tendency to stray into arrogance, elitism, isolation or nihilism (rejection of all distinctions in moral or religious value)."

5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.

"Journalism has an unusual capacity to serve as watchdog over those whose power and position most affect citizens. The Founders recognized this to be a rampart against despotism when they ensured an independent press; courts have affirmed it; citizens rely on it. As journalists, we have an obligation to protect this watchdog freedom by not demeaning it in frivolous use or exploiting it for commercial gain."

6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.

"The news media are the common carriers of public discussion, and this responsibility forms a basis for our special privileges. This discussion serves society best when it is informed by facts rather than prejudice and supposition. It also should strive to fairly represent the varied viewpoints and interests in society, and to place them in context rather than highlight only the conflicting fringes of debate. Accuracy and truthfulness require that as framers of the public discussion we not neglect the points of common ground where problem solving occurs."

7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.

"Journalism is storytelling with a purpose. It should do more than gather an audience or catalogue the important. For its own survival, it must balance what readers know they want with what they cannot anticipate but need. In short, it must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant. The effectiveness of a piece of journalism is measured both by how much a work engages its audience and enlightens it. This means journalists must continually ask what information has most value to citizens and in what form. While journalism should reach beyond such topics as government and public safety, a journalism overwhelmed by trivia and false significance ultimately engenders a trivial society."

8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.

"Keeping news in proportion and not leaving important things out are also cornerstones of truthfulness. Journalism is a form of cartography: it creates a map for citizens to navigate society. Inflating events for sensation, neglecting others, stereotyping or being disproportionately negative all make a less reliable map. The map also should include news of all our communities, not just those with attractive demographics. This is best achieved by newsrooms with a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. The map is only an analogy; proportion and comprehensiveness are subjective, yet their elusiveness does not lessen their significance."

9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

"Every journalist must have a personal sense of ethics and responsibility--a moral compass. Each of us must be willing, if fairness and accuracy require, to voice differences with our colleagues, whether in the newsroom or the executive suite. News organizations do well to nurture this independence by encouraging individuals to speak their minds. This stimulates the intellectual diversity necessary to understand and accurately cover an increasingly diverse society. It is this diversity of minds and voices, not just numbers, that matters."

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