News and opinion

I’m part of an event at the Museum of Television & Radio Media Center on Wednesday about opinion and news, and so I’m putting my thoughts together beforehand. That’s not hard to do on this topic since it has been argued over … and over … and over. So there’s nothing new here, just a summary of things said before.

The question isn’t whether opinion should be injected into news. The issue is about revealing the perspective, opinion, and bias that already exist. It’s about transparency — into a journalist’s viewpoint and also into the process of news judgment. It’s time to unlock the sausage factory.

Key to this discussion is the realization that journalists do not own or even decide the truth. It is their job to help the public decide what is true. And so the public has a right to know what journalists bring to their stories so the public can make better judgments. The one real lesson the internet and the advent of two-way media has brought to the masters of old media is that they did not own trust. The journalists thought they could just tell the public to trust them and accept what they said as the truth. But they never really could.

At every journalism seminar like this, someone asks whether readers will trust a reporter covering an election after knowing how the reporter votes or what party she belongs to. I argue that the readers wonder and speculate about this anyway and so once it is out in the open, then the discussion can turn to the reporting: ‘Having said that I’m a liberal, now you can judge my work on its completeness, fairness, and accuracy.’ There is no agenda worse than a hidden agenda.

Sometimes it’s easier to discuss this in arenas other than politics. At yet another seminar on news and opinion, an editor raised the example of a reporter covering a smoking ban. If the reporter smokes, don’t we have a right to know that? If we catch the reporter outside the office catching a puff and we say, “gotcha,” isn’t that a problem? Should journalists ever be on the other end of a “gotcha”?

But none of this means that just because you have a relevant perspective on a topic in the news, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cover it. Nor does it mean you should. A good reporter must be intellectually honest and report the facts no matter whose perspective they may bolster.

And none of this means that you need to reveal every single view you have, only those that are relevant. A food writer probably doesn’t need to say what party he belongs to. But if he can’t stand Italian food, that’s relevant.

Here are my disclosures.

  • Wish I’d been invited to the party this time, Jeff. I’d argue that opinion is the wrong word in the new journalism order. Argument is the word. Tell me why you make the statements you make, not what you think about an issue. Contemporary journalism is filled with opinion, but it’s seriously lacking argument — something Chris Lasch argued effectively was necessary for a involved citizenry.

    Knock ’em dead.

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  • Jeff, I stumbled across a link to you at where JR is one of my regular haunts. Left this comment over there:

    I have not yet been to read the entire article, so my comments may be way out of context. If I might include newspapers and magazines (think Life, Look, SatEvePost) in their heyday and the early masters in TV journalism (Murrow, Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley, et al) then I heartily disagree with the comment about trust. There was a level of trust in those days, with those sources, that we are not likely to see again, other than on a narrowly channelized micro level.

    After reading your post, I think I might not have been too far out of context. I realize the “trust” thing is tricky and we can get mired in that for days. How does your position accomodate the sources and levels of trust addressed in my comment?

  • i always love italian food, they are really tasty like indian foods.`;”