Sunday, August 30, 2009

Uh, why should I care?

I was sitting in the newsroom when the publisher came in to talk with me about a story he wanted covered. He received an e-mail from Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization headquartered in Colorado Springs. Apparently, the e-mail had circulated to various people in Ada, and many were concerned regarding the e-mail’s claims. The e-mail stated that a new bill called the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act would “not allow a pastor to preach the biblical truth regarding homosexuality.”

I decided to study the act in order to write a good story so citizens could be informed. I looked at the bill over and over and over again. I could not find any evidence to prove the e-mail’s claims. So I stated in the story specifically that the bill would not limit free speech, but simply add the term “sexual orientation” to current hate crimes statutes.

A primary reason why newspapers are struggling now is because of journalists’ resistance to explain how an issue will affect their audience. They simply present news, throw in a few quotes and call it a day. The primary purpose of journalism is not to merely provide information to citizens so they can be free and self-governing, but to interpret that information so the audience will feel some stake in the information being presented.

“Interpretative journalism” became prominent in the 1930s where columnists like Walter Lippmann vouched to help the public not only know the news, but understand the news. This model of journalism should be more prominent today, because we live in a very complicated society. Take the debate over healthcare as an example. There is not one journalist who has read any healthcare legislation and can explain what it means. Instead, they ignore the homework and simply quote the bill in a story, which is ridiculous! No wonder why the public is not interested in reading the news.

By explaining what an issue means to the public, journalists also provide cohesion within a community. A story may have an impact for one region and a totally different impact in another. An example would be the cap-and-trade bill in Congress. If a journalist from a Maine newspaper explains that jobs in the oil industry may be lost by making companies invest in renewable resources, the public may respond by saying, “Ok, so what?” But if that interpretation is expressed in a newspaper in Oklahoma, then it would get a very different response. The community would come together to try to stop a bill that would negatively affect Oklahoma’s economy.

The concern journalists have with this interpretative view has to do with objectivity. If journalists start to interpret the news, then their opinion may slip into the story. That is fine. There is no problem if your interpretation is your opinion if the interpretation is based on fact. When I did the hate crimes story, I did not let my opinion dictate my interpretation of the news. Personally, I am a conservative Christian thinker. But that does not mean I will side with Focus on the Family. I did not. I presented the facts, and then gave an interpretation corresponding with those facts.

The journalism industry is going through tough times financially, but a lot of it is journalists’ own fault. They lack the ability to accurately tell people why news matters; fearing their reputation of objectivity will be lost. If they start interpreting the news, then not only will they make money, but they would also provide good, quality journalism.


  1. I agree with you, journalists do tend to not explain how a story potentially impacts a reader. It's a shame to do all that service for your audience, only to leave them hanging. There are plenty of times when I sit down to read the paper and I'm left saying "What the heck did I read?" It is for this reason I value the advice that Professor Judy gave me when I had her a couple of semesters ago, which was to write your story so that an eight grader could understand it. What I don't agree with is having a journalists slip his opinion into a story. That could run into all kinds of trouble. It is not a journalists job to provide opinion, but to only provide enough facts and explanation of facts and leave the opinions up to its readers.

  2. This was a very interesting read. I agree with you on that journalists need to incorporate the who-gas (who gives a ____?) into their writings. It's important for citizens to know why they should care.

    However, I feel conflicted. Maybe journalists are just supposed to state facts and let the reader interpret how they feel or why/if they should care about a topic. I haven't thought much on this issue until I read your blog, hopefully I will develop more concrete opinions on this!

    Thanks for the eye-opener!

  3. Stating your stance on a topic is an opinion oriented piece, and has its place in the medium. It's under the opinion/editorial section of a paper/site. Tackling a subject through concise, yet thorough, means should be every journalist's goal. Unfortunately, I feel that the recent technological advancements have made timeliness such a focus that we, as a society, are gaining a glut of topical information lacking the ever important aspect of what this means to the given audience. Interpreting what a set of variables means to the people who consume your product is solid, concientious reporting, whereas stating more far reaching opinions is a whole other beast entirely. It is important to keep a vigilant eye on what is what, as it can be easy to stradle this line.