January 31, 2017

What I Want From the News Media in 2017

Rachel Maddow in Seattle
Rachel Maddow in Seattle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some good discussion about the role of the mainstream news media has been taking place around my recent post about whether the news media should be covering Donald Trump's Twitter account to the extent that they have. My personal view is that the role of the news media should be to engage in investigative journalism and to report facts in a reasonably unbiased manner with the goal of informing the public. I'd like to see the news media, especially the cable TV news media, keep their editorializing function (i.e., presenting opinions about various stories) clearly separated from the fact-based reporting. It is not that they should never offer opinions; it is that when they do so, the content should be identified as distinct from everything else.

We have a model for this in the form of reputable newspapers, some of which are still around. They typically have an editorial page where one can expect to encounter various opinions. These pages often feature the work of syndicated columnists who operated from various ideological backgrounds (e.g., David Brooks). Not only is there nothing wrong with this, but the columns are often thought-provoking and informative. The key, however, is that these sorts of opinion pieces, op-eds if you prefer, are separate from the rest of the newspaper. One finds them in a designated section of the paper, and they are clearly identified as being opinion pieces.

Contrast this with cable news. Regardless of which channel you pick, one show runs into the next, and most seem to be a blend of fact-based reporting and ideologically-driven opinion that is rarely identified as such. Sure, I suppose one could argue that the viewers just need to know which is which, but I am not convinced that many do. Moreover, that seems to be a bit of a cop-out on the part of the cable networks. If their mission is still one of informing the public, they could do a much better job of this.

Perhaps each of the many opinion-based cable news shows should begin with a disclaimer that what one is about to see is opinion rather than news. People would still tune in to watch, but such disclaimers might help them realize what they were watching. Of course, this would be even more effective if all the opinion stuff were removed from the rest of the news and happened only in these clearly designated opinion shows. This would certainly bring more credibility to the serious news programming.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that cable news should eliminate any trace of opinion. I am suggesting that they separate opinion from news and label opinion as opinion. If I want to hear Rachel Maddow's opinion about various political stories, I know where to find it. I'm not going to make the mistake of thinking that anything I see on her show is unbiased or objective. Perhaps some of it is, but so much of it clearly filtered through an ideological agenda that anything objective seems to be the exception rather than the norm. If I watch her show, I'd do so because I am interested in hearing her opinion. And yet, some viewers of her show and others do not seem to make any such distinction.

When I want actual news - when I want to be informed about what is taking place and not what some ideologue thinks about what has taken place - I'm going to need to look elsewhere. And when I do look elsewhere, I'd like to be able to find real news without all the opinion - or at least the opinion clearly identified and segmented from everything else.

Update: This post turned into a two-parter. You can find Part 2 here.