Business of News: A Journalist’s Job is to Report and Offer Balance, Not to Persuade

The first line in the sand I ever drew with a publisher occurred when he said he was hearing from his colleagues that our news pages and editorials were too liberal. We were about to conduct a 1,000-person marketing survey and I wanted to ask the “Is the newspaper liberal or conservative?” question and later ask if the respondent identified as liberal or conservative.

As I had hoped and expected, there was a 1-to-1 correlation between the respondent’s identification and the view of the newspaper. All conservatives thought we were liberal, and all liberals thought we were conservative. Drop the mic. The publisher never brought it up again.

Sadly, however, recent research is showing that there is nothing we can do to change the perceptions of our readers on many issues. They believe what they want to believe and no amount of research, reporting or “fact checking” can change their minds.  The public “perceives reality in starkly different ways,” according to research by Professors David Barker and Morgan Marietta. They have been studying the divide since before the election of President Trump and have written a book called “One Nation, Two Realities: Dueling Facts in American Democracy.”

The news for journalists is not good. We are not part of the solution because, well, there isn’t much hope for a solution. The professors argue, “Without agreement on where we are, deciding collectively where we ought to go is practically impossible.”

Fact-checking and trying to present a balanced view of both sides does not convince the public that journalists are disinterested because of two reasons.

The first one is “intuitive epistemology.” The public comes to an issue with a perception firmly in mind and listens only to evidence and reports that bolster that view, ignoring arguments to the contrary.

The second reason is that the fact checkers themselves often have an inherent bias and fact checkers often disagree when they check the facts. Outright lies are easy to check, but when politicians are deliberately ambiguous, then fact checking is more ambiguous.  (To add to the problem, less than a third of the public believe fact checkers are unbiased.)

It would be easy to dismiss this, as I did years ago, as what naturally occurs when people of different political jerseys look at the other side. But Barker and Marietta’s research shows the nation is divided along moral issues. “It is the degree to which (the voter) prioritizes compassion as a public virtue, relative to other things like rugged individualism.” People see what they look for in the first place.

“In other words, people do not end up with the same answers because they do not begin with the same questions,” wrote Barker and Marietta.

To back this up, they note that the belief the vaccines cause autism is shared equally among people who identify as Democrats or Republicans. The real driver is different core values, not partisan identity.

So what is a newspaper to do?

First, I would try to understand that the journalist’s job is not to sway public opinion, but to report as many indisputable facts as possible. (“The Senate voted 53-47 to pass the bill.” “The deceased was shot by a person with a .45-caliber handgun.”)

In the more challenging cases, I still believe there is virtue in trying to balance a story, trying to represent as many sides as possible, even acknowledging the nuances.

I believe we could be more transparent in our reporting—offering the readers links to the research we have used.

Finally, we can just acknowledge the divide and split our editorial pages with this in mind. USA Today and others have famously done this.

Our web presence allows us an approach more radical. On controversial issues, we could simply split the difference and line up pieces with a “pro” version and a “con” version on the most divisive issues. Journalists cannot force readers to review “the other side” but they can offer it.

We should continue to fact check (even if most readers won’t believe it), and we should continue to offer multiple viewpoints on issues (even if most readers won’t believe half of them.) The issue for journalists is not to change minds, but to offer the disinterested view of the issue.

Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at tim@the2020network.com.

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11 thoughts on “Business of News: A Journalist’s Job is to Report and Offer Balance, Not to Persuade

  • July 18, 2019 at 5:38 am
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    How I wish the majority of mainstream media outlets would not only give lip service to your comments here, Tim, but would actually take them to heart. This morning, all I saw on CNN and MSNBC were anchors–not analysists or op-ed writers–calling President Trump a “racist” and his campaign “ugly.” These are not facts. No one knows what is in the President’s heart, and “ugly” is in the eye of the beholder. The job of news media is to present the facts–what he said–and the way many different people representing many different sides have responded. If the journalist wants to explain why some people see what he said as “racist,” that’s fine, provided the journalist includes why others don’t. Tim, have you seen that kind of reporting on the White House or Congress during the Trump years? I haven’t. Like most Americans, I know where to look for the journalists who are going to blast President Trump, and I know where to look for those who are going to explain his continued support. I know from where the ad hominem attacks are going to emanate, and I often watch and read them so that I will be able to respond properly when asked. By trying to be fair, I have been called a “deplorable,” an appellation many of my readers tell me they bear with pride.

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    • July 20, 2019 at 7:01 am
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      Thank you, Susan. I really liked this line: “I know where to look for the journalists who are going to blast President Trump, and I know where to look for those who are going to explain his continued support. ” So true.

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  • July 18, 2019 at 5:39 am
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    Tim Gallagher’s view of what journalism should be is the most sane perspective I have read n more than twenty years. Please publish more articles like his in E&P.

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  • July 18, 2019 at 8:26 am
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    All journalists have a bias. How you ask a question matters just as much as the subject of the question itself. Many times, the framing of the question reveals that journalist’s bias. Whether the journalists of today want to admit it or not, most of the universities producing journalists have their own bias and the overwhelming number of journalists being produced align themselves with Democrats. That’s a fact.

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    • July 20, 2019 at 7:03 am
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      Thanks, Tom. I have a slightly different perspective. I have written previously that young reporters tend to have a “government should fix this” bias because as editors we tend to start them out covering city hall, or county government, or the statehouse. They become trained in the notion that government is the answer (which then might lead them toward the liberal side of the aisle.) What do you think?

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  • July 18, 2019 at 3:18 pm
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    Excellent article by Tim.

    So many articles in newspapers today contain comment, opinion, and views. While I do not have the facts to back this up, I believe it is one of the reasons that people have turned away from newspapers.

    I don’t buy newspapers to read editors of journalists views on a subject, I buy newspapers to read a report on a story. I want news not views in newspapers.

    Journalism used to be about reporting the news, today even moderates like the BBC and the ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation include views as news. I just wrote about the same thing on my blog. https://candourist.blogspot.com/2019/07/what-is-journalism-for.html

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    • July 20, 2019 at 7:05 am
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      Thanks, Robert. I read your blog post. What do you think are the factors that have driven journalism in this direction? For my money, it’s the segmenting of audience and the desire to “own” a particular group of people who think a certain way.

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  • July 18, 2019 at 7:46 pm
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    Agree with much of this article. Having been in media for 40-plus years, mostly with daily newspapers, I have seen the biases first hand in some co-workers and it is sad.
    Opinions used to be contained to op-ed pages, now too often they are in other sections of the newspaper.
    I was trained that objectivity was the standard, and reporting accurately and fairly the goal. But it seems many in the industry now are more about advocacy than reporting. They’re not trying to inform, they’re trying to sell their narrative.

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    • July 20, 2019 at 7:06 am
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      Thanks, Jim. Some of what you say is true, but don’t you believe that it starts with the stories and topics journalists decide to cover? This tends to make the liberal/conservative divide sharper. What do you think?

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  • July 21, 2019 at 8:41 am
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    Thank you. Even if the current readers are too close to a topic to stay objective. Reporting is also for the future readers that want to learn about a time in the past. Bravo to the person that states facts, includes research and sets their own views aside to report on a story that matters today (even if we don’t want to believe it) and in the future (so we can grow).

    Reply

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