A Veteran Journalist Explains How the News Media Really Works

Some people seem to believe that American journalism is monolithic and all-powerful and that news reported in newspapers or in broadcast media has been prescribed and pre-written by a vast hierarchy of news dictators. Any rational examination of the U.S. news media reveals the silly impossibility of this conspiracy theory.

There are many hundreds of newspapers across the country and thousands of news outlets, including television, cable, radio and websites. It would be impossible to control or dictate to those many thousands, serving constituencies from small towns to large cities to professional associations. In the heyday of newspapers, when most respectable cities had at least two newspapers, those newspapers often represented different perspectives — liberal and conservative or Democrat and Republican.

The demise of daily newspapers has left most cities with only one newspaper, and it might present just one editorial viewpoint and endorse only one party’s nominees. But the essential need to sell newspapers to a broader population means most newspapers now take a more nonpartisan editorial stance.

He Said/She Said

A recent post on a current events/politics website prompted an angry reply from someone who blamed the news media for the current difficulties with public discourse. This person was tired of reading news stories that contained the terms “he said” or “she said.” The commenter, apparently, wanted reporters to own up to their own news stories instead of dodging responsibility by referencing someone else.

That commenter has never spent any time in a newsroom or a journalism class and never gave any serious thought to how news stories are generated or written. In 33 years as a newspaper editor and as an occasional college-level journalism teacher, I consistently emphasized to reporters that they are not news sources; they have no authoritative knowledge; they should have no opinion on a subject, even when they might have some personal opinion on the subject, as reporters, they have no opinion and no real knowledge. Their job is to interview those who do have knowledge, whether it is a witness to a traffic accident, a scientist involved in research that is of public interest, or a legislator pushing a bill through legislature. Their job is to accurately report what that source knows. This process should be done at least twice in every news story because almost every story has two sides; interview people on both sides of controversial issues and report what both sides have said, with as fairly equal treatment as practicable.

Facts or opinions that are not attributed to the source are like information in an academic paper that is not footnoted. The reader should ask, “where’s the reference?” As a newspaper editor, I often asked, “where’s your source?” Occasionally, I’d be told, “I saw it myself,” and I’d tell the reporter, only a little facetiously, “you need a better source! Who else saw this? Interview them.”

So the person who wanted to do away with “he said” and “she said” in news stories wanted something other than journalism. He/she wanted unsourced opinion, a personal perspective, not news. I suspect the angry commenter suspected reporters of dishonesty, of collusion with unseen puppet masters of journalism, of nefarious, insidious conspiracies against the public weal.

Political Bias and the Newsroom

Regardless of the leaning of the editorial page, however, respectable news sources mandate that news coverage be transparent, fair and non-partisan. Even the appearance of political bias could harm the public’s perception of a newspaper’s fairness. I had to threaten to fire a reporter who wanted to keep an outdated campaign bumper sticker on his car. I pointed out that his coverage of any political news would be seen as prejudiced as long as he had that sticker on his car. For that reason, I have never put a political sticker on my car or sign in my yard.

Reliable Sources

Concerns about citing news sources (“he said”) is something new. In years past, concern within and outside the news business had to do with anonymous sources, which are less trustworthy than named, clearly identified sources. Some newspapers tried to ban anonymous sources altogether, but that proved to be extremely difficult. Most anonymous sources are people who have clear, even unique, knowledge of a matter but cannot afford to be named because they would lose their jobs. This is especially common in the federal government, where clandestine plots are kept secret for fear of alerting opponents.

Most news organizations adopted a policy of requiring a second or even a third source for information from an anonymous source. The initial bombshell had to be verified by someone else with direct knowledge and with no direct ties to the original source. In hyper-partisan Washington, anonymous sources appear more frequently than ever.

A rogue reporter would have a hard time getting false or distorted news into a traditional publication exactly because of the “he said,” “she said” news style. A false report would have to get past one or more skeptical editors (and anyone who has spent much time in a newsroom is a skeptic). Then it would have to withstand the barrage of criticism from the sources themselves. No one likes to be misquoted, and most will demand a retraction, correction or the keys to the company as a defamation judgment.

At one time, bad reporting would not be tolerated. A news company had a reputational and financial interest in ensuring news is reported accurately. Bad reporters would be fired, or never hired. Editors and publishers kept close watch on news coverage. Facts had to be referenced and provable, thus the “he said,” “she said” requirement and editors asking, “How do you know this?” The proliferation of news sites made possible by the Internet gives readers access to more viewpoints and more sources for unvetted, unsourced, misleading news. The sad thing is that too many news consumers discern no difference between the reliability of the 150-year-old New York Times or Associated Press and the upstart Alt-Right or Democrats United.

On a Facebook feed, they all look about the same, so they must have the same reliability, right?

Hal Tarleton spent more than three decades as a working journalist and editor of The Wilson (NC) Daily Times. This post originally appeared on his blog, The Erstwhile Editor.  

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