Now there’s something that’s hard to define. Good journalism. I suppose it means reporting the truth without bias, or just reporting facts without opinions. That’s a great concept, but it’s probably not even possible to achieve. As an example, just look at all the different ways that the situation with Russia is being reported in the national news. Right before the last election, Russians either “interfered” in our election, or they “influenced” it (or “attempted to influence” it), or they might even have “meddled” if they were really being bad. The words that are used tend to reflect the political orientation of the news channel that I’m watching; if you don’t believe it was that serious and that Democrats are just whining, it’s only “influence.” The really bad word that I’m hearing now is that those Russians might have “tampered” with the election. Tampering tends to mean more than just sending out disinformation over the internet though; it can also mean that they tried to access our voting records or actual voting machines. My point is that it’s hard sometimes to know when the news channels are editorializing and when they’re not, but you can usually tell where they’re coming from by what words they use. We’ve come a long way from the days when John Chancellor used to do the NBC Nightly News, and his editorials were clearly labeled with the word “Commentary” on the screen. Whenever I see any clips of old television news shows, I’m always amazed by how neutral the language sounds.
The good news is that we still get a more fact-based, unbiased presentation from local news, in my opinion. They don’t have a lot of time on those shows, and they probably have to be careful not to turn off a sizeable segment of their audience, so they’re not very political. Of course, that’s not to say that all the news programs report the news in exactly the same way. As a case in point, a couple of months ago, one of the local channels reported, “The police chief in Farley resigned last night …” and showed video of the police station. The reporter did a fine job of stating the reasons why he resigned, and that was the whole story. I remember this report because I happen to live in Farley, and I like to know what’s happening in my community. That was the five o’clock news, and I half-watched the 5:30 national news and ate some supper before I changed the channel to get different local news at 6:00. Then I heard another take on this story: “The only police officer in Farley resigned last night …” and I didn’t hear the rest because I was in shock. I was living in a town with no police! And this news reporter just told every potential crook in eastern Iowa! I think I went around and locked all the doors. The report was accurate, I suppose, but do they really have to endanger the public like that? But that was a couple of months ago, and Farley now has police protection again. I feel better.
As a parting shot, here’s a report from maybe twenty years ago that I still remember. It’s about an event that happened at the gas plant in the town where I’d gone to high school. I was sitting in front of the TV watching a central Iowa local news broadcast when one of the anchors said something like, “There was an accident today at People’s Natural Gas in Ogden.” Then he started laughing, and his co-anchor lost it too. The gas plant has since changed its name.