Recently I was invited to speak at the Young Conservatives of Texas convention on the media and its role in holding government accountable. There is no doubt about it; the media should play the role of the “Fourth Estate,” a non-governmental entity that holds the various branches of government accountable. In order to understand the role of the media, it is important to be aware of the various ways stories are treated.
Historically, stories were treated as either news or opinion. News is meant to present the facts and little else. If it was necessary to provide additional perspectives or opinions, various views would be given equal time and balance. This can be done in a publication, website, radio program, or TV news show. In addition to news there are opinion stories. This is an approach to the news where all sides know that it is not objective, but the writer or speaker is giving his unique perspective. As I have often said on my radio show — the Price of Business — I am about opinion. I do have an axe to grind. Allowing people to know I am biased is part of my responsibility as a broadcast journalist.
In the last few decades there has risen a different approach to the news called “analysis.” This approach is designed to allow the writer to take on the issues beyond the facts and provide opinion, but in what is considered a softer approach than traditional opinion pieces. When this approach was first developed the news source made it clear it was analysis so they could treat the story accordingly. I believe “analysis” has done enormous harm to the journalism profession. There is virtually no raw reporting of the news these days and the old model has been replaced with analysis, without informing the reader that such is taking please. They are told it is news, but it is news with an agenda. I don’t have any romantic notions, I know this form of journalism has existed for years, but there was a time when other media would hold other publications accountable. Today, “yellow journalism” is the rule and “fair and balanced” is rare indeed.
If the news was doing its job properly the vast majority of content would be pure news without agenda. The emphasis would be the facts, regardless if it was beneficial to the government or the political parties behind the policy agendas. Obviously it would need to adhere to the elements of fair play — people are innocent until proven guilty, varied opinions deserve to be represented, the objective of the story would be discovery and not promotion or harm.
Meanwhile, those in the opinion business would adhere to a different, but equally important set of principles. They should make it clear that they are expressing their opinion and not facts alone. I try to mention this fact during any interview where I feel it is important to express my view. Opinion journalists should consistently hold people accountable to their standards. They should not “cover” for a friend if the positions that person takes differs from the journalist. Opinion journalists should consider the holding of the government (and other institutions) accountable as one of its most important responsibilities. These individuals should be saddled with the necessary facts and ready to take on those in government.
The media today fails in its role of holding other institutions accountable. Be it government, business, labor unions, or other entities. Hard news itself has been replaced with a “conventional wisdom” designed to prop up the credibility of the mainstream media.
In order to correct this situation, consumers of the news will need to continue to write their opinion to the news outlets, they should develop blogs to correct the incorrect stories, they will need to organize demonstrations that showcase the errors of the media, and they might hold press conference to showcase the problems they find with the news. Furthermore, business owners who understand the importance of a fair and balanced press should consider purchasing media outlets and make sure the desks are filled with those committed to holding others accountable. Finally, individuals who are interested in the integrity of the news might consider a position in this challenging field.
The job of people in journalism is to inform and hold others accountable. In the same vein, it is the responsibility of those who consume the news to hold the journalists accountable.