(A six-minute read)
What is journalism? I asked this question back in April and then took almost fifteen hundred words to outline what it is not.
I broke my own rule, which is: define yourself by who you are, not by who you aren’t. After all, that’s what God does. Oh well, I’m only human.
To sum up my previous observations: self-proclaimed journalism today is unrecognizable to one who was trained in the craft forty years ago.
Please understand that, while I do have my own biases (as we all do), I offer the following analysis without regard to ‘left’ or ‘right’. No one is blameless in this – no, not even your favorite outlet, whatever it is. It’s the rotten state of a rotting industry.
And yet, in the midst of rot, new life springs up. There is still real journalism out there, and it’s worth paying for. Use some of the tools below and go find it. It’s worth the search.
Think For Yourself
If you look hard enough and spend time thinking about what you read, you can avoid falling into a pit of your own biases. Yes, I know how comfortable it is to consume things that reinforce what I already believe. But gaining knowledge means going where the information is, even into an unfamiliar neighborhood.
It’s like properly reading the Bible. I have to read what Jesus said about hell and my chances of going there just as much as I read about how much he loves me and will forgive me when I confess and repent. Picking and choosing only what I like leads me into error there, just as it does as I peruse what’s written, published and broadcast.
Back to journalism. A classic definition of journalism is, ‘writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation (emphasis mine).
In two short decades we’ve gone from that to almost endless presentations of opinion, without a necessary regard for the facts. Opinion used to be called opinion. Opinions were like a certain orifice: everybody had one. Now these orifices are on full display, relabeled as journalism.
Like so many other things, the definition has changed for the convenience of the People In Charge.
Our Upside-Down World
We live in an evil-is-good, Scripture-is-hate, man-is-woman, feelings-are-truth, subjective-is-final counterfeit-rainbow sort of world.1 And in this, opinion is now masked as journalism. What the People In Charge decide is right becomes truth.
I’ve said before that the term ‘echo chamber’ is a misnomer. The highly politicized social culture that has evolved in the absence of real journalism has moved us way past ‘echo chamber.’ We are now stuck in a copy machine, which cranks out page after endless page of an idealized version of real-time events as the People in Charge wish them to be.
There are now two things masking as journalism that call themselves journalism. And many of those who practice it are finally admitting that they must help you, Dear Reader, by interpreting the truth for you. But the occasional small glimmer of light isn’t enough – at the moment – to offset all the misdirection that’s out there.
Narrative and Myth
The vast majority of what we see, hear, read and are told now falls into two categories, Narrative and Myth.
Narrative is a political or social point of view that is pushed by unseen publishers and editors to influence what is reported, how it is reported and, much more important, what is not reported. Much of modern ‘news media’ product of all sorts falls into this category.
Myth is the construction of a narrative around a made-up point of view, i.e. so-called conspiracy theories or the assertion of conclusions as fact, without actually citing any facts. Myth-making is a convenient strategy for news media elites to underpin the narrative stories they tell for their own aggrandizement.
Ooooo-kay. What Now?
Here are some tips to help you know actual journalism from narrative or myth.
- Presents information without bias. Look for headlines without the following: could, should, might, may, believe, possible, possibly, reports say.
- Contains no clickbait.
- Only makes an assertion with a quoted source, sometimes two.
- Relies on named sources, not ‘sources say’.
- Verifies every story independently, as opposed to simply republishing someone else’s work without checking it.
- Has no ‘fact check’ column, because the checking of facts occurs in the writing and editing of stories before they are released.
- Gives you information without labeling it as what you need to know about ___
- Describes any criminal charge or accusation as ‘alleged’ until a court has rendered a verdict.
- States any institutional point of view up front. To that point, carefully watch story selection for ‘slant’ or ‘exclusion.’ A true journalistic venture will have roughly equal numbers of stories (in aggregate) from various points of view.
- Runs easily seen corrections when mistakes are made.
- Doesn’t change copy without announcing it.
- Publishes stories that go against the general editorial position of the outlet.
- Has reporters follow the money and the paper trail, not the loudest voices.
- Has publishers and editors make editorial policy, not a mob of junior line employees or worse, social media.
- Doesn’t tell lies with a straight face.
Pre-industrial, pre-scientific humanity had a myth-weaving culture. Stories were created to explain things people could not understand or fathom: creation, the nature of good and evil, the seeming impartiality of natural forces. These myths all reflected local biases and experience.
As civilizations advanced, each group developed its own version of these myths and told these stories over and over. Through this, narratives were born.
Eventually, as the rule of law superceded the rule of men (h/t John Adams) it seemed wise that a well-informed citizenry was crucial to maintenance of a stable pluralistic society. Journalism served this function. In the American republic (and indeed in all free Western nations), this free flow of information was available so people could make up their own minds about things.
Yes amazing as it seems, ordinary people were trusted with making up their own minds.
Incredibly, people were trusted with raw information.
Sadly, The People in Charge are afraid to do that now. If we know too much, we might throw them out. Well, as Mulder and Scully said, ‘the truth is out there.’ We’ll see how that works out for the People In Charge over the next few years. If it does work out for them: tyranny. If not, freedom may yet prevail.
If wishes were fishes and cattle were kings, the world would be full of wonderful things. But they aren’t.
1. Go ahead. Cancel me. It will say more about the state of your heart than mine.
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