By Bex Peterson, Editor-in-Chief
A few members of the OP attended a national student journalism conference down in San Diego last weekend. Comparing this experience to my experience with student journalism conferences in Canada—such as NASH—was jarring, to say the least.
The consensus seemed to be that accusations of “fake news” in the US are not driven by a lack of online media literacy, critical examination, and problematic social media algorithms that ensure sensationalist reporting always floats to the top; but rather, that journalists are far too forward with their biases in reporting. To “regain the trust of the people,” to “safeguard our credibility,” it was made clear time and time again that the solution was for journalists to purge themselves and their public image of any discernable opinion. Articles should be written “without analysis”—just a string of unconnected facts, one after another.
One presenter gave an example of an article she received where a quote from President Trump was followed with the dialogue tag, “he said, without supporting evidence.” She scrapped the article. In her view, the journalist’s only job was to quote the president, provide the facts below the quote, and leave it to the reader to put two and two together and come to their own conclusion as to which was more valid—the quote, or the facts that contradicted the quote.
There’s a beauty and simplicity in this view of journalism, and I honestly admire the thought process behind it. The woman who gave this example had a wealth of experience in the field, taught classes on the subject at a university, and was forthright in her convictions that this is how journalism should be.
I do agree that articles should focus on facts, and that journalists should park their preconceptions at the door. Nudging the perspective one way or another with manipulative language in the text is, to me, poor journalism, and skewing stories to serve one agenda or another robs a writer of their credibility.
The fact of the matter is, until the populace is trained in critical media studies or general media literacy, people need some analysis and a broader context provided in the articles they read. This was a criticism of reporting on the SNC-Lavalin issue—because many news outlets were following the story from the beginning, even back to when the first charges were laid in 2015, many articles did not provide a larger context for the issue outside the drama on Parliament Hill. How is anyone supposed to have an informed opinion on a matter without context? (And yes, I do recognize how context can be skewed—I am not by any means saying that my view on this is absolute.)
For another thing, no matter what we do or how hard we try, as human beings we are always going to have a bias. Objective fact will always be viewed through a biased lens—unbiased reporting would state, for example, that man-made climate change exists. However, reporting on this subject is always viewed and taken as an expressly liberal/leftist stance and concern. If the hope is that people will stop claiming “fake news” if we strip all analysis and personality from our reporters, it’s honestly a fool’s hope when the facts themselves are perceived as having a partisan slant.
I am very opinionated. I am also a stickler for fact, and fact-checking. I admit when I’m wrong and have changed views, positions, and stances based on evidence. As a student journalist and media editor, I am doing the best I can.
The problem, in my view, isn’t analysis. It isn’t journalists having an active and robust Twitter feed. It’s that, whether we present the facts as unconnected data clips or with a rigorous contextual analysis, we still have no control over how the information is spread, distorted, read, misread, and ultimately received. It’s that, on both ends, we need to be far more critical of the ways we are presenting and receiving information.
Media literacy is potentially the most important skill a person can develop as we move forward through these trying times. But that’s just my opinion.
Until next issue,