Distributing information, and by consequence helping sway public opinion, has always been the role of news organizations. Moreover, today the distribution of information has become realtime while the sources of information has grown exponentially. But has this really helped Americans become more aware and informed of the pressing issues of the day? Or, has the evolution of news gathering and reporting resulted in the opposite and an erosion of America's intelligence and ability to make well-informed decisions. Consider the following:
- Explosion of News Sources
- Blurred lines between News Programs and Entertainment Programs
- Decreasing Independence of News Organizations.
- Blurred lines between News Reporting and Editorial Commentary
- Little emphasis on checking facts.
What to do...
America has always faced great challenges. Each generation further defines the real character of this nation. And, many of these changes in our society are substanative and lasting. One only has to look back in our shared history to see how the great American society has evolved with such examples as the woman's movement or civil rights or the growth of worker unions.
In all of this, distributing information, and by consequence helping sway public opinion, has always been the role of news organizations. This has proven to be a power that has, and will continue to, shape our lives and our country's destiny. But news organizations are undergoing some fundamental changes of their own. Today the distribution of information has become realtime while the sources of information has grown exponentially.
But has this really helped Americans become more aware and informed of the pressing issues of the day? Or, has the evolution of news gathering and reporting resulted in the opposite -- an erosion of America's intelligence and our ability to make well-informed decisions. Consider the following:
- EXPLOSION OF NEWS SOURCES. The distribution of news and information now comes from an almost unlimited number of sources. Today's information can be as readily collected from an individual as it can be from a large news organization.
- NEWS PROGRAMS VS. ENTERTAINMENT NEWS PROGRAMS.. There has been a blurring in the differences between news programs and entertainment programs (maybe the result of increasing ratings). Do Rush Limbaugh's listeners think his program is simply for entertainment value or an analysis of the news?
- INDEPENDENCE OF NEWS ORGANIZATIONS. There appears to be a lessening of the independence of large news organizations from the influence of the parent company's leadership. Even if it is not in the form of partisan bias, it can come in the form of ratings pressure that impacts what is reported and how it is reported.
- FACTUAL REPORTING VS. EDITORIAL COMMENT. In reporting the news, there is a blurring between what would be considered news reporting vs. editorial comment.
- FACT CHECKING. There is no significant emphasis on fact checking in reporting, and maybe more importantly, in allowing political leaders make their sound bite claims, emotional appeals or character assignations go relatively unchallenged.
People (being people) have a tendency to listen to those whose ideas and opinions most closely match their own. With the evolution of news reporting and the news reporting environment, many folks find, and stay with, the news source that most aligns to their own opinions. And, in the absence of balanced, accurate, and factual reporting, the general public is fast becoming less informed and more siloed in their perceptions of the critical challenges facing our country.
What can be done?
Any changes should start with the large news organizations. There must be a recognition of the degradation of news reporting by the leaders of the fourth estate, so that positive action can be taken to ensure truth, openness, transparency and balance can remain the foundation of our news organizations.
Probably the most important of these is bolstering truth and facts as news is disseminated. A co-owned, co-sponsored, and independent fact-checking organization could be established for real-time analysis on key issues. (As a tangent, Pollsters could also leverage this information, as well, to see the impact of disinformation on public opinion as feedback to Americans. We might even go so far as to allow the political parties to submit requests for fact checking as a way of getting accurate information out to the public.) A strong, independent fact checking organization would soon become self supporting as more groups rely on it in their reporting and communications to the American public.
Maybe our leading news organizations should resume prime time reporting of key issues as they arise or as they come to a critical juncture. Consider Health Care Reform for a moment. What if NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, et. al. presented the key issues (complete with fact-checking) so that American's could benefit from non-partisan reporting. This presentation would obviously needs to include the principle players, but their messaging would be very different if they knew that their claims and characterizations were going to be fact-checked before airing. Imagine how that would change the very nature of politics -- starting to heal the continued distancing of the polical parties brought on primarily through rhetoric and wild claims.
The challenge on our news organizations is simple. Do they accept the moral responsibility of ensuring good reporting (be it truthful and balanced) or will they continue down the road of honoring the almighty ratings? And, is there one news organization with the character to lead this transformational effort?