Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Even mainstream journalists get sick of themselves, & I remember why

By Diane Silver

A column over at the Roanoke Times in Virgina reminded me about the frustrations of my newspaper days.

I used to cover the Kansas Legislature for The Wichita Eagle. My life partner would laugh that she got the best Statehouse coverage of anyone in Kansas. That's because I'd come home from work and tell her the stories I couldn't get into print.

It wasn't an issue of censorship so much as an issue of (1) priorities (2) time and/or (3) the conventions of the MSM.

Priorities often became an argument between what I thought was important and what the executive editor, the state editor, the assistant state editor, etc., thought was important. Their priorities weren't always my priorities, and frankly, I don't think the editors' priorities were always what was most important to the people of Kansas or our readers.

In the world of academia that I inhabited as a journalism grad student before coming to Kansas, we used to passionately argue about the true definition of news. We'd ask: What is it? What should the definition of news be?

When I got out here to Kansas I learned that there really was only one definition of news in the newsroom, and it was somewhat of a joke. News was whatever happened to ____ and his friends. That blank is the name of the top dog in the newsroom. Thus, I would sometimes be sent off to cover a minor bill, not because it would effect the lives of many Kansans but because it would impact a few rich folk -- that is ole' so and so and his friends.

I honestly don't think there was any evil intent in this. It was just a matter of perspective and a few folks' inability to walk in the shoes of our readers.

Time was also a big issue. You can't cover everything, no matter how hard you try. Thus, important stories were often missed. The corollary to time was of course space. The newspaper could only print so much news on any given day.

Finally, the conventions of the business hemmed reporters. Roanoke's Dan Radmacher mentions that in his column when he talks about the practice of "bracketing the truth." In other words, a reporter gets "both sides of the story," whether or not there are two sides, three sides, or 43 sides, or only one side, to what is actually happening.
Many reporters also believe they've done their job if they simply quote both sides of an issue -- as if most issues only have two sides -- with no further effort to get at the truth of the matter.
Radmacher puts this off to laziness, but I think there's more to it than that. I remember many times when I was required to get "two sides," no matter how many sides really existed. (This happens often today in coverage of the gay rights movement.)

I also remember being so stretched by deadlines that I didn't have the time to find the information and to verify it in order to show that the "two sides" idea was wrong. If you have to fill the news hole and you have to write something, then it is always easier to quote Dude A and Dude B and let it go at that. (By the way, these usually were dudes, as in male officials.)

Finally, I wonder if we've reached a point where it's time to actually call politicians (can anyone say George W. Bush?) on their lies. Radmacher's column does a great job of showing all the times Bush has lied, yet the ultimate "L" word is seldom used with Bush. I think it's time to dust that delightful word off and finally tell a bit of truth.

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