DAVE VORLAND: It Occurs To Me — Being A Reporter

The other day, Dorette and I watched a television interview with the journalist Seymour M. Hersh, broadcast in connection with the release of his new book “Reporter.”

It’s getting great reviews. So Wednesday, I hustled over to the nearest Barnes and Noble. The book had just arrived and was already sold out in the store. But a clerk was kind enough to retrieve one from the warehouse. It now sits on my nightstand.

I can’t wait to dig into it.

Way back when I thought I would become a reporter myself. Some of my favorite memories are of working summers at the Harvey (N.D.) Herald and Friday and Saturday nights at the Grand Forks Herald (my task there was to telephone small town high school coaches for their basketball scores).

I majored in journalism at the University of North Dakota and later earned a master’s degree at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, always assuming I would work on newspapers.

But fate decreed otherwise. Instead I became an instructor at UND and St. Cloud State University.

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My love of journalism began with my local paper. The largest newspaper in Minnesota, it originated as the Minneapolis Tribune in 1867 and the competing Minneapolis Daily Star in 1920. A few years later, the two consolidated, with the Tribune published in the morning and the Star in the evening. Eventually, they merged in 1982, creating the Star Tribune.

A similar story unfolded in St. Paul, where the Pioneer Press and Dispatch offered separate papers for many years until merging in 1985, eventually producing a morning edition only.

As a kid growing up in the 1960s in a western suburb, I looked forward to reading the Star, which usually arrived at our doorstep in the late afternoon.  There were also a handful of local television stations, typically offering half-hour newscasts at 6 and 10 p.m., and a small share of radio news options, most notably led by the “Good Neighbor,” clear channel 830-WCCO-AM.

If you were fortunate enough to earn a news position with one of those media outlets, objectivity was a high priority. There were editorial pages and a sprinkling of radio talk shows, to be sure. And locals always had their disagreements about just how right or left leaning the various outlets appeared to be. But because the options were so limited, it was important for journalists to maintain credibility by seeking several reliable sources to assure accountability. Sometimes, that meant sacrificing urgency for accuracy.

Admittedly, it was easier for reporters to take one’s time back then, simply because consumers had fewer choices. If I didn’t like what I read in the Star, I might try the Pioneer Press, but their target audience was more directed toward the east side of the Mississippi River. Just the same, a reporter’s carelessness with the facts in 1967 was far more glaring than it is now because mistakes stood out like a sore thumb.

Fast-forward 50 years. Want news today? There are endless choices. Newspapers are declining because urgency is everything. Television can provide live news coverage anywhere, anytime. But even they feel the pinch, with cellphones and internet offering far more options on-demand. Sounds like a no-brainer as to which era is better, right? Not necessarily.

Let’s begin with the premise that there is no such thing as totally objective news. We all have our own preconceived notions about “what” people need to know and “why.” That’s a good thing. The “when” we get our news is better than ever. The “where” is unlimited. The “how” choices are mind-blowing.

So why are journalists under attack like never before? The answers lie in the “who” and the “what.”

Who?

There are literally thousands of media choices in 2017, more accessible than ever before. TV, radio, magazines, newspapers can be watched, heard or read anytime, anywhere. Websites and blogs represent views on the left, middle and right. Special-interest groups, social media sites. Unlike years ago, almost everyone has a forum now. But their levels of expertise and commitment to fairness and objectivity can be all over the map.

Ironically, only six major corporations control a large chunk of the mainstream media. Comcast, Disney, News Corporation, Time Warner, CBS and Viacom compete for our money and our attention.

So regardless of the size and scope of our preferred media choices, accuracy often takes a back seat to profit and influence.

What?

Here’s where we really get into trouble. The powerful media corporations need to be cash cows to keep their operations in business. The smaller, individual voices need larger forums to be heard more effectively. So both feel the need to cut corners. Larger audiences help pay the bills. Being first to tell the story or making the biggest splash becomes more of a priority in this “need it now” world, than taking the time to get it right. The result?

1. Fast and loose information: Offering up rumors rather than facts, checking for validity later.

2. Unnamed sources: Using vague identifiers like “Some are saying” or “Sources say.” It allows for consumers to be influenced while protecting the writer from being fact-checked.

3. Misleading data: Presenting polls suggesting a large group of people feel a certain way. Give a fancy name without clearly indicating who these people are and which way they lean.

4 Selective facts: Presenting information that may be accurate but only represents one side of a story.

5. Outright lies: If it’s necessary to achieve your commitment to higher ratings, presenting falsehoods with the hope that they are vague enough or old enough, to not be fact-checked.

6. Repetition: Presenting all of the above, so frequently, that those inclined to believe you will eventually accept it as fact.

The real tragedy in all of this, is that honorable journalists who truly do care about objectivity are being lumped too easily into a large, generalized group with those who don’t. And because of the sheer numbers, it’s become a game that can be played far too easily.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a “fact” as “something that is indisputably the case.” But facts without context can still be misleading. Here are a couple of examples:

  • On Friday, a record high of 63 degrees was recorded in the Twin Cities, breaking the previous mark for Feb. 17 by eight degrees. The source for that “fact” is the National Weather Service. Yet a skeptic could argue that because it began their record-keeping in 1870, it’s possible a warmer temp could have occurred before then. And since that reading was recorded at the airport, isn’t it possible we reached 64 somewhere else in the area? That’s why journalism schools preach the importance of “reliable sources” and “context.”

Relativity is important, too.  Is it a fact that the 63 degree reading is “unseasonably warm?” Yes, if your audience is Minnesotans in mid-February.  That wouldn’t work for someone from Hawaii.

  • When President Trump proclaims, “CNN is Fake News,” is that a fact? Well, according to its webpage, the Cable News Network has over 40 editorial operations worldwide and more than 3,000 employees. Considering that it is a 24-hour channel competing in today’s ridiculously competitive world, it is undoubtedly safe to assume that there have been missteps and inaccuracies along the way.

But that’s the danger of a world without context. I could assert that all jewelry store owners in New York are crooks. And while a handful might fit the description, many others would feel their reputations were damaged yet have no chance to win a libel suit.

Lump enough people together without context. Repeat it enough times to a an audience eager and willing to believe it. Maybe even lie a little bit to increase your numbers, line your pocketbook or feed your ego.

Just because it’s become a lot tougher distinguishing fake news from the real stuff, that shouldn’t mean we should quit trying.

Take the time to get out of your comfort zone. Gobble up as many sources as possible, not just the ones you agree with. Determine who’s talking and what they’re saying. Most importantly, look for context and perspective.

Finally, don’t ever be afraid to keep challenging inaccuracies. Even if they’re coming from people you think should know better.

MIKE BRUE: Just The Facts, M’am