Journalists work for the public, but not everyone knows it

Published 6:24 pm Monday, March 4, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

Who do you think pays journalists to write stories? Hopefully, you know it’s the newspapers the journalists work for. Bonus points if you know newspapers get the money to pay journalists from advertisers and, increasingly, from you — the reader.

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Unfortunately, if you got that question right, you’re in the minority.

A whopping 60 percent of people said they think reporters are sometimes or very often paid by their sources — the people they write about. That’s according to a Reuters-Ipsos poll from December, conducted for Columbia Journalism Review.

Majorities of people identifying with both major political parties — 54 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans — thought the people they read about in the newspaper can pay for that attention.

That stat doesn’t so much reveal a problem with the U.S. population as it does with the journalism industry.

As journalists, our job is to be good communicators. We aren’t doing a good job communicating if a strong majority of people believe something so fundamentally false about what we do.

So, let’s briefly set the record straight about what journalism is, why reporters do what they do and why it matters.

Journalism is not simply telling stories; it is telling stories based on facts, and doing so with as much transparency as possible. You know you’re reading journalism if you can tell where everything in it came from.

Reporters are trained to leave their own perspectives out of journalism and source everything in their stories to specific people, organizations and documents.

That doesn’t mean we always get everything 100-percent right, and it certainly doesn’t mean we’re just robots or stenographers.

It does mean we are hard workers with a passion for making our communities better through truth. And we’re willing to take criticism and admit when we’re wrong.

By the way, what you’re reading right now is not news; it is opinion. This editorial is not sourced the way a news article would be, and it contains personal perspectives from the editorial board.

That’s why it appears on the opinion page, not a news page.

You should not read the opinion page to get your facts in much the same way you should not eat ice cream for every meal of the day: It may be tasty and enjoyable in small amounts, but if it becomes a staple of your diet, you’re going to get sick and develop long-term health problems.

Journalism matters because there can be immense benefits for those who know the facts — and profound consequences for those who don’t.

Journalism makes it much easier for large numbers of people to know the truth about government action, crime, education, charities and more.

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism, recently wrote that besides journalism — or news media — there are two other kinds of media: “social media, which have no discipline, much less verification; and strategic media, which try to sell you something: goods, services, ideas, politicians, causes, believes, etc.”

All three kinds of media can serve good purposes. But none is as valuable, or under as severe a threat, as journalism.

Journalists must become better at explaining that. The future of our democracy depends on it.