Friday, February 20, 2015

The Definition of News

There’s a commercial currently running on TV that irks me every time I see it. It is so insulting and annoying that my 60-inch screen now bears at least a dozen indentations from objects thrown at it whenever this commercial airs. The spot is for a local station’s news show and quite effectively advertises the fact that they have no clue what news is.

I find this particularly insulting because I worked very hard earning a degree in journalism, only to see journalism move from the print medium to the broadcast medium, where television stations are more interested in hiring attractive Teleprompter readers with high Q-ratings (a metric testing how likable the anchor is) than skilled reporters.

In this commercial, the local anchor – whose LinkedIn profile identifies her as an “investigative reporter” – says her viewers ask her how they find the news, and she explains “We listen to what people are talking about.” That’s neither investigative reporting nor news.

Investigative reporting involves research (both online and offline), cultivating off the record sources, and digging up the stories no one is talking about. News itself, by the very definition of the word, is something that is new. A reporter’s job is to INFORM people about the new things they don’t know about; not to discuss what they are already talking about. Talking about what people are already talking about and then telling other people about it is not news reporting; it’s gossiping.

Of course, some newspapers are little more than gossip rags. You see them at the grocery store checkout counter. But while both are printed on newsprint, no one would equate The National Enquirer with The New York Times. But the Enquirer doesn’t pretend to be the Times. A free press is vital to democracy precisely because of reporters who are willing to investigate what the public does not know but needs to know, and to inform the public of what it should be talking about, not to reiterate gossip. The public needs to know what its leaders are doing behind closed doors; what factors are impacting the global economy; what health risks are being downplayed for the sake of corporate profits; and what can be done to alleviate damage to the planet from global warming, fracking, and deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest – not more celebrity gossip about the latest antics of Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus. As broadcasters move away from “hard news” to “soft news” in search of higher ratings, the public ignorance is increased to its detriment. An ignorant populace is easily manipulated by those in power, or those who seek to be in power.

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