About a month ago, I covered a town hall in Vernon and, just as the two politicians finished answering audience questions, a man approached the microphone and asked, “How are we going to get this information out because media isn’t doing it?”
Grinning, the politician promptly responded: “Well we have our own platforms you can follow.” She referenced Facebook among other platforms. “But I think there’s something to be said about a business model that can’t keep up with the technology.”
Many in the audience clapped and cheered in agreement.
While this worried me, it didn’t much surprise me (it also didn’t affect my reporting). Our job as journalists — and why we spend time in universities and colleges – is to learn how to present the truth as effectively, accurately and as balanced as possible regardless of opinion.
With the advent of social media, this phenomenon had been building for years, finally, coming to a head during the 2016 U.S. election.
Having lived in Ohio while pursuing my undergraduate degree, I saw first-hand the effects social media had on the production, distribution and consumption of information. Suddenly, anyone with an internet connection and an opinion believed they could be a journalist and were taken as seriously.
Because Ohio is a swing state, I went to school with people on either side of the political spectrum and witnessed friends on Facebook sharing “news articles”, from unknown sources or, even worse, articles they did not even take the time to read beyond the headline.
Coincidently, this week, while I was writing this piece, questions surfaced in the U.S. about certain news outlets “killing stories” based on political views. Whether this turns out to be true or not, it brings up a familiar conversation about the difference between commentary and journalism — whether consumers can actually tell the difference.
Yes, it’s noteworthy that the journalism business model needs reconfiguring — and is currently in the process of trial and error (advertising models vs. subscription) and newsrooms are shrinking all over the country. But, the biggest problem I had with what happened at the town hall wasn’t the politician who took a stab at the media (that’s expected), it was the public’s response. It seems people are willing to disregard information if the news doesn’t fit their worldview.
Deliberate dismissal of ethical journalism in place of personal beliefs doesn’t only hurt those of us who are in the industry, it hurts society at large. And while criticism is expected and is an important and crucial part of the journalism world — letters to the editor are encouraged — I think people should know that most journalists chose the profession, many in spite of the current climate, to better society, provide citizens with vital information and act as watchdogs for governments and officials like the MP who visited Vernon last month.
George Orwell once said: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.”
He had a point.
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