Slippery Slope

Slippery Slope

Social media and commentating is fun, but what we really need is more objective journalism.

We in the media too often assume that our readers understand how and what we do, and why we do it. But occasionally—thankfully—you remind us this isn’t the case, and we need to explain ourselves from time to time. Meanwhile, our ineptness at marketing the value we bring to society has, over the last three decades, done our industry quite a disservice.

A smart, seasoned businessman sent in a letter about last month’s Editor’s Note on American Crystal Sugar describing it as a news story that should not have included my personal viewpoints. In fact, Editor’s Note is an opinion column, though I usually include facts and figures to back up my side of an issue. We talked, clarified this point, and have published his viewpoint as a guest commentary. We also changed our table of contents beginning with this issue so that what we used to call “Columns”—including Corner Office, Open Letter, Performing Philanthropy, and Northern Exposure—are now listed under “Commentary.”

I raise this matter for two reasons. First is that we’re here in part to create new, and support existing, dialogue on important matters affecting Minnesota’s economic and socioeconomic environment. Our columns are supposed to be thought-provoking—possibly irritating to some—through well-researched opinion writing. Mine are occasionally contrarian (e.g., “Hold the Mayo” in the March issue) because, while it’s easy for a viewpoint that receives widespread attention and dissemination to be almost unconsciously accepted as reasonable, even good, it’s important that other sides to an issue are at least considered. And we really appreciate it when you let us know your opinion, whether it’s similar to ours or different.

The second reason to bring this up is that it comes at a time when the lines between opinion and “straight news” have become so blurred that more Americans than ever don’t understand the difference—and worse, don’t care. Their apathy in turn propels further reductions in objective, factually sound reporting, which needs their support both in terms of readership numbers and dollars (subscriptions or indirectly, as a response to advertising).

Estimates for newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the newspaper industry down 30 percent since 2000, below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media 2013. Objective journalism-focused magazines have fared similarly. Meanwhile, blogging and one-sided TV news commentators, from Bill Maher and Chris Matthews to Rush Limbaugh and Fox & Friends, have proliferated. Both are interesting, fun, and good content as long as people understand what they are—opinion, which is rarely if ever fact-checked for accuracy—and if it is, usually only to support one side of an issue.

On top of that, many bloggers have little direct experience in or deep knowledge of their subject areas. One I know of is widely respected for opining about media, yet he’s never worked for a significant media outlet and worse, sometimes doesn’t ask such outlets about how they operate before telling his readers how something should or shouldn’t be. He sounds as though he knows what he’s talking about, so it’s easy to think he does—even though he’s sometimes clueless and careless about fact-checking.

Journalists do thorough research, balance their reporting, and check their facts. At Twin Cities Business we double-check our content before we print it; we also continue the almost forgotten concept of gatekeeping: That is, those with a platform that allows broad communication with the public have the responsibility to objectively and fairly report on important issues that affect people’s lives—issues in the public interest—regardless of how the journalist, his or her family and friends, or the publication’s owners feel about a subject.

This worked fairly well when there was a finite and relatively limited number of “mass media” outlets. Today, however, when nearly everyone can be his or her own content publisher, this concept is fading.

At the same time, journalists—and even many non-journalists—also believed in the vital role of “the fourth estate” through which journalists and their publishers helped ensure that our three branches of government were serving the public, and not themselves. That’s not to say traditional media always got it right—there’s plenty of blame to go around. But there was (and still is at many remaining news publications) a system of checks and balances, and a sincere effort to cover—sometimes uncover—malfeasance, corruption, and self-dealing. From Watergate to word choices, government officials’ efforts to hide or distort important matters were often caught.

The media also grew increasingly important as a check on business—and since businesses are now often more influential in our lives than government is, this is particularly crucial. It’s even more so now, as government and business (through marketing and PR) are delivering content—with their own slant—for staff-starved media to simply funnel to the public. This is one reason Enron got away with things as long as it did: Fortune, Forbes and others touted it as one of the best companies in the country because of great work by Enron’s marketing team. Where was the double-checking or the hard look at finances?

These trends need to be discussed because if left unchanged, they’ll continue feeding a growing, willful ignorance among the general public that is becoming toxic to American democracy. On a less grand scale, they’ll make it even more difficult for leaders to work with government, and for voters to know how, and for whom, to vote. And they’ll make it harder on businesses.

How? Ask yourself:

  • How important is timely, accurate, and objective information to your investors, researchers, purchasers, and others making real-time decisions?
  • How much—and how quickly—could a false tweet, inaccurate blog posting, or poorly reported online story negatively affect your business’ sales and earnings?
  • If such a false report were to gain currency, where would you direct people to find an independent, trustworthy account of what really happened?

This publication’s focus is business, but part of its larger mission is to continue to produce objective, accurate, fact-checked news and information—a kind of journalism that is, unfortunately, increasingly rare. Next time you read and appreciate something we’ve done, please let others know.

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