Journalism's Reckoning

Dogma Be Damned: Set Real Journalists Free

For many, it would seem unusual, if not highly suspect, for a long-time public relations executive to opine on the state of journalism and to offer remedies for its preservation. After all, aren’t most PR pros charged with positioning their clients more favorably in news and feature stories? (There are strategies to achieve this.)

I thus find myself in a quandary, torn between offering an interview/story idea to a news outlet pre-determined to be receptive to the message, while avoiding those that would not be. Pete Buttigieg’s flirtations with Fox News aside, there are valid reasons why Trump talks to Maria Bartiromo and Biden to Stephen Colbert.

Maybe I’m alone in the industry in wishing that all journalists adhere to a strict set of standards and practices so we at least know we’ll get an even shake. If this fantasy were to come to pass in an age of media fragmentation and public polarization, what would it look like? Would self-selecting news consumers suddenly recognize and gravitate away from the misinformation filling their Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube feeds and instead opt to follow outlets with a shared set of standards?

Maybe journalism is finally on the precipe of real change? Has the subscription success of bona fide news organizations a result of their having captured more like-minded readers or a new-found appreciation by others for quality journalism? Are there signs of life in the local news ecosystem?

[Guardian] chief executive Annette Thomas on the news org’s milestone of 1 million subscribers: 

“It is an incredible testament to Guardian journalism that so many new readers have supported us financially over the last year.  As we look ahead, deepening our relationships with more readers and growing our digital reader revenues will be central to the Guardian’s future strategy and long-term success.”

In reality, there’s no way in hell to expect the growing number of partisan (mostly right-wing) “news” sites to have a come-to-journalism-Jesus moment and discover that facts actually do matter. Those that control their purse strings have too much at stake to allow this to happen.

Nonetheless, there’s a reckoning afoot among the acknowledged (yet beleaguered) news orgs that do produce quality journalism. Anyone following Eric Boehlert’s Press Run or Margaret Sullivan’s musings in the Washington Post will recognize that those creating “the first write of history” would do their audience a service by re-thinking their approach to their métier. The long-held mantra of “balance” in news reporting, which spawned “false equivalence” and “both side-ism,” has proven to be a detriment to the public, i.e., is it Congressional dysfunction or Republican obstructionism that has ground Congress to a halt over the last decade?

This practice needs to be jettisoned.

Vetted facts should continue to reign supreme in news reporting, but we have to recognize that facts alone, without context, can impair journalism’s goal to shine sunlight on the issues and serve as a third-party check on power.

This week NBC “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt laid down the gauntlet, as the AP reported: “NBC’s Holt adds empathetic commentaries to news anchor role:”

“The days of dispassionate journalism are long gone,” he said. “We have to acknowledge our audience and validate what we’re all seeing.”

In announcing the formation of an “Opinion” section (headed by former Quartz EIC Kevin Delaney), The Information’s Jessica Lessin proclaimed:

“Opinion sections across the media landscape are becoming hidebound by ideology. As such, they are boringly predictable, and smart readers want more. We aim to inform, not troll,” she added.

Top tier news organizations have always had op-ed sections, separate and apart from their news holes. Some take this church-and-state separation seriously like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, while others less so, e.g., Fox News’s day-side “news” operation, which is anything but “fair and balanced.”

Yet there’s another news genre emerging — one that melds fact-based reporting with commentary to add context to stories for greater public understanding. At The New York Times alone, we’re seeing the emergence of “news columnists” like Kevin Roose, Charlie Warzel, and Kara Swisher, all of whom break news — without the trappings of false equivalencies — while enhancing their reporting with their own expert, FACT-SUPPORTED point-of-views.

It’s no longer enough to simply recount the facts. It’s now OK and even preferred, to give journalists the license to add their personal perspectives to help the reader gain a more complete understanding of what’s being reported. Draconian journalism dogma be damned. Let the facts, and those who report them, speak for themselves.

Full disclosure: the writer of this piece has represented The New York Times, The Associated Press, the Newspaper Association of America, and other news organizations in a public relations capacity. He currently represents Courier Newsroom, a progressive, fact-based, and issues-focused news organization with one national and seven local newsrooms.