As a journalism professor I am often asked what I think about the news media, including how stories are being reported and how I feel about journalism in today’s political climate. I usually take a deep breath, knowing I cannot possibly begin to explain in a brief conversation all of my thoughts on this, and the person at the other end of the conversation probably doesn’t want to hear it.
They usually want what most people want today — give it to them in a 140-word Tweet, or a 20-second sound bite, and they want my opinion to reflect theirs. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s wrong with audiences today and the media, especially television news.
According to the Pew Research Center, television is where the majority of Americans get their news, 57 percent to be exact. And television news really isn’t news anymore, but a TV show to drive ratings. The biggest problem is the news media have become a profit center and figured out that what audiences want and are willing to accept are the “Cliffs Notes” version of the news. And notice I refer to it as the media and not journalists. That’s because most true journalists don’t like this 24-hour news cycle of biased programming meant to do one thing, and it’s not to inform the public but to increase ad revenues. Nothing about television news is designed to give audiences fair and balanced reporting. Rather, it is nothing more than a portal to suck in a like-minded market segment so that more advertising can be sold. The television news media is more about making money than informing us.
News on television was once a department that was not expected to be a profit center. It was a public service the networks provided . Then along came cable, Ted Turner and his 24 hours of news on CNN and the world of television news changed — and not for the better.
I’m willing to bet that, if polled, most journalists would love to see opinions set aside in favor of in-depth televised news stories with vetted sources presenting all sides. Chuck Todd, an NBC journalist and host of “Meet the Press,” recently reported on the loss of Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff in a special election, blaming Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi: “It is Pelosi who remains a pretty big drag for Democrats at the polls…”
Most journalists are trained to keep opinions like this out of their stories, to report facts, but televisions news has taken a turn and now it is de rigueur to give their opinion. I don’t need or want Chuck Todd telling me what he thinks Pelosi is or is not to the Democratic Party. I can form my own opinion based on facts. As Fox News used to say, “We report, you decide.” We all know Fox is just as guilty as all the others, but how I wish every television news outlet would truly adopt this motto and just report the facts, so I can decide.
I wonder if audiences realize televised news is light on facts and heavy on opinion. A heated discussion of media experts and analysts is not news. This bantering doesn’t inform the public, it only reinforces opinions formed from a meme on Facebook, a Tweet or a biased headline, and that is all the information many audiences need to form or reinforce their opinion — no facts required. It is not surprising our nation is so divided.
Audiences have become polarized just like Washington, D.C., and this is in part due to our televised media. We don’t get unbiased reporting that might allow us to form an opinion based on the facts or, dare I say, might allow us to digest some information that would make us change our mind or at least see the other side of an issue. No, instead we tune in the news channel that reinforces our opinions. We listen to the media discussing their version of the news and what they think.
Unfortunately, this unlabeled editorializing blurs the lines for average Americans seeking truth from the media. News commentators, not journalists, nonetheless pass themselves off as journalists quoting other news sources, doing no real investigative journalism themselves. Sources are not vetted and no interviews are done, but conclusions are drawn and inferences made about topics where they have done no actual reporting. All of this only serves to confuse and exploit audiences.
It’s human nature to seek like-minded individuals to surround ourselves with, but it’s up to us to seek the truth, something the media should be doing and we should be demanding on these 24-hour news channels. Till then we need to stop feeding the advertising beast and be good media consumers and seek out good well-sourced news stories either online, in a newspaper or both.
Sharon J. Gripp is a senior lecturer and serves as the undergraduate program director in the Department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media at Baylor University. Among other courses, she has taught writing and reporting for mass media.