This just in: A new study has concluded most of the people reading this don’t think about news the way journalists think about news.
On its face, that conclusion would appear a simple argument for better reporting, and there is little doubt about the need for that.
Hardly a day goes by that an intelligent reader of the news doesn’t finish a story asking, “What actually happened here,” or “How exactly did this happen?”
Case in point, a story just days ago in the Anchorage Daily News reporting on a young woman dead at the Alyeska Resort after an accident that caused a blunt-force chest injury.
“Approximately 16,000 deaths occur from chest trauma annually,” according to EMS1, a website for those in the business of emergency medicine. “The most common cause of blunt force chest injuries is the motor vehicle crash, accounting for 70 to 80 percent of such injuries.”
Simply put, one hell of an impact to the chest is required to cause such an injury. It doesn’t happen by someone simply falling down on the ski slopes.
The ADN story offered no clue as to how this sort of injury could have happened to Penelope Foudeas at the state’s only major ski resort; the story reported only that she “wiped out” and then died as the result of a “freak accident.”
As it turns out, the freak accident wasn’t that freak. Foudeas fell on the slopes above a ramp called “Main Street” cut into the side of the ski slope’s South Face. This smooth, gently sloping ramp is there to make it easier for beginning and intermediate skiers to descend from the upper tram station to gentler ski terrain lower on the mountain.
When it is cut into the side of the mountain, however, the cut leaves a ledge on the uphill side of the Street. According to a Foudeas family member, Penelope fell above the ledge, hit a rope intended to prevent skiers from entering Main Street from above, went over the rope and the ledge, and landed on her chest on the nearly flat ramp.
It was like falling off a cliff or out of a building.
This critique of the ADN’s reporting of the story isn’t intended to single out the Anchorage newspaper, but to point out one of the biggest problems undermining trust in journalism today.
There are a lot of people reporting on subjects about which they have not the slightest clue. The young reporter assigned the Alyeska story describes herself on her webpage as someone who enjoys “binge-watching the same three television shows, playing video games and attempting to keep my house plants alive.”
There is no indication she knew a thing about the terrain at Alyeska, and she was working without a net.
Gone are the days when a crusty ADN editor would read a story like her’s and asked, “OK, how the hell did this freak accident happen?”
Editors who used to ask such blunt questions have largely left the business, and the culture itself has changed. In the woke world of journalism today, such a blunt question might be considered borderline verbal abuse.
Against this backdrop, it’s not hard to imagine how politically incorrect questions about a story involving politics might be viewed.
Which brings this back to that vast divide between journalists and their readers.
The study funded by the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research concluded that “only 11 percent of Americans fully support all five of the (core) journalism values.”
These are, generally, according to the study as far as it is possible to determine:
- Fact collector and checker
- Government watchdog
- Righter of wrongs
- Voice for the voiceless
- And protector of the public square.
Sounds a little like a list for Superman, doesn’t it? But this is apparently how journalists think of themselves.
That defender of the public square business is the “transparency” issue, the idea that journalists should be helping to make public as much information as possible to further the public debates vital to the survival of a democracy.
Meaning of is
It’s hard to tell from reading the study whether average Americans disagree with these values or disagree with these values as presented in the way the pollsters presented them.
Whatever the case, there is little doubt about the disagreement between journalists and readers given poll after poll concluding that most of the latter don’t trust the former.
One journalistic answer to this problem would appear to be to change the spin.
“The report’s authors…tested different ways of presenting the same story. For example, one about pollution whose ‘standard’ headline would have been: ‘At-risk neighborhood now facing health threat from toxic drinking water,'” writes Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist at the Washington Post.
“A revised version was found to have broader appeal for many readers because it emphasizes the role of a trusted authority, in this case, the military: ‘Local community at risk after state officials ignore military study.'”
The Associated Press (AP), she added, intends to start “experimenting” with these kinds of headlines to try to solve the trust problem.
Far be it from me to disagree with a big-time columnist from a big-city newspaper, but if Sullivan thinks this is going to fix the problem, she’s delusional.
There’s one way, and one way only to fix the trust problem, and that is for journalists to start talking to angry readers about how they did their reporting and why.
Unfortunately, that simply isn’t going to happen.
In the first place, most reporters these days are too busy rewriting the stream of government press releases to have much time left to talk to anyone.
In the second place, and most importantly, their bosses don’t want them talking to readers because there is no telling what might be said, and this scares the hell out of the few editors left in the business.
As a longtime reporter and outdoor columnist at the ADN, I always ignored the order to keep my mouth shut when members of the public called, usually to accuse me of being part of a vast, liberal, media conspiracy.
Given that my political ideology, whatever it is, was formulated in a blender overstuffed with differing social and economic philosophies, that was a pretty easy accusation to dismiss.
But I always enjoyed talking to readers even if that got me into trouble more than once and led a former managing editor to warn “you could get fired.”
The editor in question was a rising star in the journalism business at the time. She is now a news editor for the AP.
The next time you read an AP story in which you believe there is a factual error, call up the reporter and see what happens. My experience with journalists is that they are defensive to the extreme, and I confess to sometimes suffering from that problem myself.
Admitting mistakes is hard. Rationalizing them is easy.
The latter spawns the “almost right excuse”:
“If you turn the newspaper upside down and read the reflection of the story in a mirror, you will see that it almost says what you believe it should say, and thus we didn’t get it wrong enough to warrant correction.”
Almost any reporting error can be defended in this way, though the most common defense these days seems to be the non-response. I’m still waiting for ADN journalists to explain why they left pertinent information out of what they clearly thought was going to be an award-winning expose of the late Andy Teuber’s sexual encounters with an employee at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium when he was the boss there.
I don’t expect they will ever explain because they feel neither a responsibility nor an obligation to explain. This is the arrogance of journalism today, which is another part of the problem.
Smarter than you
The authors of the Media Insight project suggested that if journalists are to regain the trust of readers they need to rethink their views.
I’d guess that if journalists were polled on this subject, the majority would suggest that readers (or at least the now distrustful majority of readers) need to rethink their views and embrace the truth the mainstream media rolls downhill at them.
This view might explain the “fact-checking” madness that went on while former President Donald Trump was in office. Trump, by all indications, wouldn’t know a fact if it bit him in the ass.
But some of the self-proclaimed fact-checkers chasing after him were almost as bad in trying to push the idea that every word coming out of Trump’s mouth was a lie.
Some might find this hard to believe, but not every word uttered by Trump as president was a lie. Just as not every word coming out of the mouth of newly elected President Joe Biden is the truth.
You wouldn’t, however, know from the radical shift in media treatment of the two presidents. This is a national problem that shouldn’t affect local journalism, but it does because the partisan divide tearing at the nation’s soul is now impossible to ignore.
The red states seem to be on their way to becoming ever more red, the blue state’s ever more blue, and the media – rather than trying to stay in the middle – seem increasingly to be gravitating to one side or the other.
I’m confident that if you were to accuse what’s left of the mainstream media in Alaska of a liberal bias in news coverage, all would refute the accusation as untrue, and they would, I am sure, be telling their truth.
If you hooked them up to polygraph machines, the machines would almost surely show they believe themselves unbiased arbiters of facts who can rise above politics.
I’m equally confident that if you sat all the members of the Alaska Press Club together in one room and asked those who identify as conservatives to stand up, no one in the group would be brave enough to rise, although I have to hope there is a conservative in that bunch.
Because intellectual inbreeding is every bit as dangerous as genetic inbreeding. It leads to a steady loss of diversity, and the media has already lost enough of that.
Inbreeding is the biggest reason journalism is dying. Forget all the academic mumbo-jumbo in the report on “A new way of looking at trust in media,” and think about your day-to-day problems with mainstream journalism.
If they’re at all like mine, this issue is as much or more about journalists who don’t have a clue as to what they’re talking about as it is about bias.
This isn’t necessarily their fault. It’s just the way it is. I mean really, who would expect a busy video gamer to know anything about skiing or someone mainly obsessed with cooking to understand marine ecology?
Sadly, without background, reporters not only miss the nuances of news stories, they lack the knowledge to impart any kind of context. Thus they sometimes get the story so wrong it is laughable.
Usually, this is accidental, although there are other times when it does look frighteningly intentional.
The Nation, a national magazine with a recognized “Progressive” bias, two years ago featured a cover story written by an ADN reporter (now an editor for Alaska Public Media) headlined “The Last Salmon,” claiming “Bristol Bay is one of Alaska’s few healthy salmon habitats,” which is patently wrong given most Alaska salmon habitat is healthy; and pondering whether the Bay could survive “the twin threats of rapidly changing climate and a Trump-backed mine.”
The future is the future. No one can know what it might bring. Thus there is nothing inherently wrong with pondering the future in a news story.
Anyone can guess, and the sockeye salmon of the Bay might one day be threatened by global warming.
This, however, is not that day. The reality of these times is that the Bay’s salmon are one of the globe’s biggest beneficiaries of global warming. It’s somewhat amazing some magazine on the right hasn’t done a story headlined “How Global Warming is Fueling an Alaska Salmon Bonanza.”
The science overwhelmingly supports such a claim.
“The Bristol Bay total run has averaged 34.6 million (per year) from 1963 through 2019,” according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, “and has averaged 45.9 million fish during the most recent 10-year period.”
That’s a 33 percent increase even ignoring the fact the long-term average is biased high by the monster returns in the last decade.
Could this trend reverse itself in coming decades or in the next century? Of course, it could. The Bering Sea could warm to the point that no salmon can survive, but it is hard to imagine that happening any time soon given that salmon are still surviving in California, a warm-weather state overrun with people and radically altered by industrial-scale agriculture.
You’d think that before writing about Alaska having “The Last Salmon” due to climate change and/or development, a reporter might want to wait until all the salmon are gone in California, maybe even in Oregon, which would still leave more than 1,000 miles of West Coast habitat needing to be cleared of salmon before getting to Alaska.
“With climate change, is there a limit to how productive the ocean will become?”Daniel Schindler, a University of Washington researcher scientist who has spent much of his career working in the Bay once asked. “We just don’t know where there’s a tipping point, especially as we fill the ocean with hatchery competitors.”
“We just don’t know….” What, we do know is that there is no visible threat of that last salmon anywhere on the horizon at this point.
Now, there is no doubt that a different headline might have helped in The Nation’s case. The story itself does contain some qualifiers.
“Fishing in the bay has been more lucrative than ever, defying patterns elsewhere in the state. Earnings more than doubled from 2015 to 2018,” it says. “Some science indicates that warmer water in lakes and rivers has sped up the life cycles of young salmon, sending them out into the sea sooner, increasing their abundance. Scientists aren’t sure what that might mean over time.”
Except even there is a whopper of a factual error appears. The 2019 Alaska salmon harvest topped 200 million salmon, more than twice the goal fisheries biologists established in the mid-1970s when they were trying to return Alaska catches to “historic levels.”
The pattern in the state was the mixed bag it usually is with some fisheries doing better than others, but how a reporter could miss the fact the 2019 harvest was the eighth largest in state history is hard to imagine.
Then again, The Nation story appears in parts to be not so much news as climate-change/anti-Pebble Mine propaganda masquerading as news, another problem that sometimes arises in the news these days and is now too easily spotted by too many readers.
Different headlines aren’t going to fix that problem. Better reporting might, but some reporters today lack the skills to do better and others lack the desire.
They can’t bring themselves to report honestly because sometimes if they do, some reader somewhere is bound to draw conclusions that differ from their own. The journalism of the day is going to have to change more than a little to convince readers this mindset is fading.
Journalists are going to need to recognize that the best stories contain enough facts – the more facts the supermajority agrees are important – to allow reasonable people to sit down and have a reasonable discussion, even a reasonable debate, as to what opinions to form on the basis of those facts.
Now, who is going to bet on that happening?