• Telling the Truth: Thoughts on Journalism and the Arts

    By Robert Lewis
    There is a clash of giants and percussion waves are pulsing through our culture and changing everything including the way we get out information and, ultimately, our truth. The clash is between the old way of getting the truth and the many new ways of getting it. This was the subject of the recent “Thinkfest” symposium held in Pacific Grove, California, called “I Read The News Today, Oh Boy!”. Titled after an exhibit that paired a poet and an artist together to respond to a news story in hopes of shedding light on this clash, the symposium, held in the chambers of the City Hall, was sponsored by the Poet-In-Residence program of the City of Pacific Grove. Here are my thoughts on the subject of journalism and the arts in this changing climate.
    The Origins of Journalism, A View
    One could make a case that the arts in earlier times were a form of journalism. They recorded and reported events that happened at a distance. Murals, bas reliefs, paintings, even buildings, though highly slanted to the benefit of the patron who sponsored it, told stories often but not always based on an incident, such as a battle, or a major event such as the destruction of a city. So, in that sense, the visual arts might be considered a forerunner of journalism. Journalism itself, the reporting of events as they happened, attempting to be faithful to the truth, is something that, like visual art, evolved out of a kind of royal propaganda. At some point the idea of truth emerged as a value in story-telling and at that point the best of journalism was born.
    Journalism vs. the Arts
    Good journalism is truthful, thorough reporting of events and conditions in the world without slanting the story so as to manipulate the opinion of the reader. This can be defined as “journalistic integrity”. This is different from and “editorial” in which the editor or the writer expresses their opinion. Once the writer moves into opinion they are not reporting and the piece will begin to be more like poetry or art in the sense that they are attempting to get their own personal point of view across to the reader/viewer. In poetry, words are carefully chosen for effect, to bring the reader artfully to a conclusion, feeling, or opinion. Visual arts, like poetry, are also “editorial”, they manipulate the viewers thinking purposefully. Are journalism and the arts equally good at illuminating the social condition? No they are not equal, they are different, working in different ways entirely. One using dispassionate reporting, the other using tools to create emotional responses, usually to a specific end, in other words, to make a point.
    Culture is Civilization
    Journalism and the arts are the language of our culture. They are the way we talk about, digest, and illuminate what is happening in our world. Journalism and the arts can only become irrelevant if they become controlled. That is because both embody ways of telling the truth, exposing lies, shining a light into the darker areas. Without a free and smart press and without evolving, unfettered arts we would have no real culture; and culture is civilization. A civilization is not a system of delivering goods. Civilization arises after the system of delivering goods has been established and then there is the time and the ability to create the varied arts, including writing.
    Who Tells the Story Best?
    I believe that people have the sense that their broadcast and cable news sources and many other news sources are now slanted and can not be trusted. This is not something I can prove. It is something that seems apparent to me and to many people. It’s a gut feeling. So, following that gut feeling, it becomes a lot of work to understand what is really happening in any given reported event. One needs to look at several sources of news on any particular story in order to get some sense of what really happened. This is because many news sources are clearly slanting their reporting to fit a particular political point of view. Examples of this are obvious, but just to site two: Fox “News” and MSNBC. This messing about with the truth in an arena where we expect the truth makes the news industry suspect. It begins to feel like propaganda and we distrust propaganda. This tendency has left the news industry less effective in getting at and dissemminating the truth to us.

    The arts, on the other hand, and, in particular, film, movies, and video, either online, broadcast, or in theaters, but also literature and poetry, make no attempt at the objective truth. Their fiction always espouses a point of view and that is right and good; it is art, after all. The arts are designed and even presumed to manipulate opinion even if the goal of the piece is to leave the viewer without an opinion. It is still manipulation. The point of view expressed in a piece, either film, book, painting or poetry, might be fair or not, but the sheer drama of the presentation, the irony or comedic effect, is more effective at shaping the opinions of people and the overall civilization, especially as our culture reads less and less and becomes less discriminating.
    Choose Your Poison?
    The use of pundits, the use of “experts”, the use of unedited press releases, the blurring of the line between reporting and editorial opinion can all be effective ways of manipulating the message. However, readers/viewers make a choice of comfort that may have more to do with whether they “like” the news anchor or the design of the publication, in other words, the “presentation” of the news. They like the style of, say, Fox over MSNBC. They may be more comfortable with the message as well. After all, these two news sources report the same news in entirely different ways, each, I suspect, slanting the news. If I choose to get my news from Fox or the Herald only, it is because I generally agree with the way they do things, not because I have proven to myself that they are accurate and unbiased. I bring my bias to their bias. So I say the average reader/viewer commits this lazy sin and so is the worse for it. If I am inclined to be a radical and I only listen to radical points of view in order to bolster my own prejudices then I will never have a “balanced and fair” outlook.
    How Do We Know What’s True?
    As we get further and further away from good examples of journalistic integrity, (such as, some would agree, the Cronkite/Eric Severeid era) we get used to sloppy reporting and fall victim to distortions, omissions, even lies. Without a shining example of journalistic integrity always before us, how can we know that what we are being told is truthful, has been vetted, cross-checked, sourced? We can not. We become less educated, our expectations dumbed down, and we begin to be less critical. I am surprised that there isn’t an outcry that some news organizations are now reporting tweets as if they were opinions of qualified experts or qualified news sources. A tweet or a post should still be cross-checked and verified.
    Is the News “manipulated” or “sensationalized”?
    It seems apparent to me, though I can not prove it, that the bottom line is at work here. The more sensational, simplified, and inflammatory the news reporting, the more entertaining it is. It grabs you and holds you long enough to smoothly move your attention from the story into the next commercial. My best example is when I had come down out of the Sierras after a three week backpacking trip. For three weeks I had not seen any media at all. Checking into a hotel in Lone Pine, California, I showered and then sat on the bed and flipped on the TV. The tone of the anchors voice riveted me by his urgency and concern. I thought something horrible had happened and, turning on the tv mid-report, I held my breath as I tried to figure out what disaster had taken place. Finally I realized that the anchor was talking about the local council meeting the night before. Actually, nothing bad had happened at all. He had simply dramatized an ordinary event. I turned off the television with a snap, having seen how they had manipulated my emotions and captured my attention with an acting technique.
    The manner in which a story is presented can sway the audience, just as a poem or a piece of art can do the same thing.
    Does “talent” Use Its Power for Gain?
    I may be cynical to say that a news pro who finds he has a talent for manipulating emotions might be tempted, for personal gain, to sway the news in a sensational way. So be it. A good example is the now-fired entertainer Glenn Beck who clearly had a very entertaining talent for hyperbole. He called himself an entertainer and did very well exploiting his particular talent until even Fox was too embarrassed. Blurring the lines between journalism and opinion, he presented himself as an expert reporter or pundit when in fact he was an entertainer. “I’m a rodeo clown,” he said in an interview, adding with a coy smile, “It takes great skill. According to the New York Times “He was estimated to earn about $32 million in total revenues in 2009, the first year that he worked at Fox.”. I would say that his expertise definitely tempted him to pursue what he did for great gain.
    Is Objective Reporting a Myth?
    Objective reporting has been an ideal but it has rarely been achieved even by the most respected news sources. The truth of the matter in early news media such as newspapers and even today is that the news position is a big money-maker seemingly designed to give the viewer/reader a sense that they are informed while not boring them with details. Most broadcast evening news programs are only one half hour while PBS still presents a full hour, taking time to go into detail. News outlets like NPR examine the news from many angles all day long. Both of these news sources are not directly funded primarily by traditional advertising, though a kind of advertising has certainly creeped into the public arena.
    Objective reporting seems to be at the mercy of the advertisers. To keep the show moving along, or to keep the advertising percentage up in print, the reporting must be kept to a minimum. This leads to shallow stories in print and anchors interrupting the very people they are interviewing, in order to move things along to the most important bottom line: advertising.

    Speaking only of online and broadcast/cable media, I think objectivity is a casualty. Click through any news cast and you can see the anchors seemingly amused at some stories and overly concerned about others. One gets the feeling that these people are only “readers” or actors playing the part of a news person. Usually the reporter on the scene does a better job, but from my experience a reporter will interview you in a way that seems apparent that they already have the story in their mind and they ask questions that are designed to fulfill their own preconceptions. Then, when you see yourself on the news or in the news you see someone you don’t recognize. How many have had this happen. Where is the objectivity?
    Having It Both Ways
    Define partisan journalism as editorial opinion and objective reporting as journalism then you can say without qualification that there is a legitimate place for both. Accurate reporting and editorial opinion are two different things entirely. It is only when editorial opinion is presented as reporting that we have confusion. The public needs to know the difference and the news service ought to label its content accordingly.
    How Does Advertising Fit In?
    Within the industry, be it print or electronic, there is a tension between the editorial department and the sales department. Each has its own valid view. The company is a business and the sales people want to increase sales to the maximum. The company is a news service and, ideally, the editorial staff wants to be good enough to win a Pulitzer. The fact is that revenue from sales of advertising subsidizes the editorial content. On the other hand, the editorial content is one of the main reasons, but not the only reason, that readers choose the news service. I say one of the reasons because, particularly in print, the ads themselves are interesting to people. Sales staff know this. It keeps coming down to the bottom line until you have what they used to call MacParagraphs back in the ‘80s, stripped down editorial content that didn’t interfere too much with ad space and allowed readers to feel as if they were intelligently informed. So, these competing forces affect the reporting of news and, because of an inability to go into detail, affect the objectivity of the reporting as well.
    Where Do People Get their News?
    According to the Pew Institute “local TV draws a mass audience largely around a few popular subjects; local newspapers attract a smaller cohort of citizens but for a wider range of civically oriented subjects.” Also, 69% of Americans say the local newspaper no longer exists. According to Pew, readers primarily use local newspapers for weather, breaking news, and traffic reports, while a smaller group of readers uses the paper for many other issues. How do people get their LOCAL news? According to the Pew Institute study “Age is the most influential demographic”. Those under 40 tend to get local news from the Internet first followed by newspapers, TV, radio, then word of mouth. Those over 40 tend to get their news first from newspapers, then TV, followed by the Internet. However, overall, Mashable.com says “In surveys conducted by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, 34% of respondents said they read news online within the past 24 hours (as opposed to 31% who favored newspapers); and a full 41% said they get most of their news online, 10% more than those who said they got most of their news from a newspaper.”
    Can Newspapers Survive?
    So how can traditional news organizations find their way forward? This change in the landscape is a real opportunity for those news services that want to establish a reputation as a trusted, objective news source. As more and more websites get into the news game, re-purposing and repackaging stories, a news service that lives up to the highest standards may, in the long run, win the game. That is because if, in the vast amount of news choices, the public finds a reliable, respectable, constantly objective source, they will flock to that source and that source will, in the end, win the game.
    New Ways of Doing Business
    Already there are new ways of doing business online, sites that give high-quality content away for free, just as there are what are called “open source” applications and uncopyrighted content. These models work now and work well, but the quality is always an issue and there are no standards or standards organizations to monitor this work. So I feel optimistic that, as time goes on, there may be non-profit or donation-based news services that deliver timely stories presented with objective journalistic integrity and that can capture, in an honest and enlightening way, the flavor of what is happening in our world.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on December 30, 2011

    Topics: Opinion


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