Distrust in the media is at an all-time high. Journalists are seen as superspreaders of misinformation and disinformation—often affirming or promoting whatever ideologies they or their publications happen to hold. Stories are manipulated, shaped and packaged to influence, not inform. Bias blocks the path of truth. Decisions at the highest levels determine what gets covered and what is omitted. Coverage is designed for clicks and ratings, not public interest. Add to that social media bubbles and algorithms and you’ve got a perfect storm, wreaking havoc on our social landscape, blurring our understanding of what’s really going on in the world, and further dividing us. But, I’m not ready to give up just yet. As I like to say: fix your house before moving to a new one. Simply put, I want journalism to be better.
It’s probably fair to say that I’ve always had some affinity for the written word. English is technically my third language, but by the time I could write in it with some competency, as a teen, I created my own mini newspaper and I’d shove it into people’s mailboxes against their will. I guess that’s what they’d call independent journalism, right? I’m grateful that there are no surviving copies.
I soon went from delivering my own copies, to delivering someone else’s—a free community paper. An after-school job, they call it. I didn’t last long. My final delivery was in the dead of winter, my frail body halfway buried in snow. Only one household on my route got their copy that week: The lady who liked to call and complain about missing her delivery (did I mention it was a free paper?). I heard that weeks later, my route was cut by 75% and the wages doubled. I picked a hell of a time to quit. Then again, I hated that job and was terrible at it, if you ask the lady on Maple Street.
But that’s alright because I was about to graduate to the big leagues. I was about to be properly published—and paid. I couldn’t secure (let alone hold down) a retail job at the mall, but when I published my first piece for the kingly sum of $50 at age 14, I thought I’d hit the jackpot.
The anonymity of the Internet meant that when I had started to pitch editors no one really knew how old I was, what I looked like, or anything else aside from: Do I have a good story idea and can I do it justice?
For a time, I also ran my own online magazine. It was the early 2000s and no one really fully knew what they were doing, let alone me. I learned to code. Sort of. And, having committed to just “trying things as I go,” at its height my website was getting about 800,000 monthly views and I got some write-ups in the press.
More importantly, my writing was giving me access to interesting people. When asked, I always explain that a key part of how I fell into journalism is that I wanted to be able to have interesting conversations with interesting people — but I couldn’t just randomly pick out someone I admired and say: please talk to me. That would be called stalking. No, I had to have an excuse. Journalism gave me the perfect cover.
What, ultimately, drove my writing has always been one thing: curiosity.
Admittedly, I haven’t worked on particularly hard hitting news or investigative pieces, but I did learn a lot about the world, whether within the realms of culture, tech, travel, science, or business.
So it saddens me that the distrust towards media today is at an all-time high. On Twitter, the term “blue checks” is used as a derogatory term, and many media outlets have dedicated themselves to the output of ideological narratives rather than the dogged pursuit of truth. It’s unsaid, but everyone knows that stepping outside of certain lines will not lead anywhere productive for one’s career.
There’s a lot of talk about accountability, but when a publication gets a story wrong, there is very little of it. If we’re lucky, there may be a tiny correction buried on a page that’s way past its newscycle, while the original story had travelled halfway around the world.
Having made a reporting error early on in my career, I know just how embarrassing a printed correction feels. That never left me. But you know what? I hadn’t made an error of this nature since.
Now, imagine a world where a correction would be given as much space as the false story?
When I worked with good editors, the best notes came in the form of questions. They encouraged me to dig in deeper to create a fuller picture, to provide evidence for claims I or my subjects were making, to bring nuance and complexity into the story. They ensured that I wasn’t presenting an opinion, but rather building a full picture of reality. Of truth. Many of these editors clearly have retired from the media landscape, evidenced by so many journalists proclaiming themselves “activists” who openly do away with objectivity—something in which they do not believe.
I openly criticize the media landscape not because I hate journalism, far from it. I believe in it, deeply. I just want it be better, do better, serve better. And lest we bury the lede, there are still some editors and writers doing good and powerful work—especially on the community paper level, which can have a direct impact on the people it serves.
But, this distrust in the media isn’t going away unless things get better. It’s a nonpartisan issue, too. I’ve spoken with liberals, conservatives, and hard-core progressives and this is something they all agree on: something has to change.
So, what are some of the other changes on my wishlist? Here are a few:
Stories should be fact-driven, based on critical analysis, and nonpartisan.
Stories should not be covered based on speculation prior to the facts being confirmed.
Lead with intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness that allows journalists to see beyond their own context and self-interest.
Opinion pieces are important and should be represented, however they should be clearly labelled as such and opinions do not belong in news coverage.
Reporting should be done from a place of neutrality and the gathering of facts to get to the truth, rather than an initial preconceived notion that leads to confirmation bias in reporting.
Full objectivity in reporting may not be possible or even desirable, but one may hold an opinion so long as the primary commitment is to investigating truth above presenting a point-of-view. The methods of the investigation should be neutral even if the facts lead to a particular outcome.
Journalism often focuses on sensationalist stories and points of view, centering on those who live on the fringes, and missing the more common-sense approaches shared by most people. Journalists should seek to fairly represent the variety of viewpoints held by the community they serve.
Adhere to standards of reporting that include gathering as much information as possible, ensuring that sources chosen for the story are as best as valuable to the sources as possible, looking at multiple perspectives, striving for fairness and absolute accuracy, verifying information, etc.
The presentation of deeper and more nuanced context, which reflects multiple perspectives that may be essential to understanding the story. This doesn’t mean that every single perspective should be included in “balanced” reporting, but rather the perspectives that might garner the deepest understanding of the story.
Stories should be covered based on whether they serve the public as much as possible, rather than designed to stir up drama for ratings and clicks.
Reduce “identifighting” or reporting that reduces people to their group identities, adheres to simplistic and formulaic narratives (such as oppressor versus oppressed) and encourages us-versus-them thinking.
Avoid the use of loaded language and ensure that terms like “far-right,” “genocide,” “fascist,” “Nazi,” “white supremacist,” are actually being used properly, precisely, and in context.
Ensure that “experts” being used in stories aren’t being used merely because they have PR agent with strong connections but actually have meaningful expertise for the stories they are asked to comment for.
On TV programs, whether on more left-leaning networks, or right-leaning, there’s a tendency to bring just one person who presents a different point-of-view, however, usually that person is chosen for dramatic impact and not necessarily for their ability to argue their point-of-view well. Thoughts and ideas need to do battle with each other and the only way to encourage that is by pitting the best minds against each other—via civil discourse.
Journalistic content should not be influenced by exterior players like lobbies, politicians, organizations, advertisers, shareholders, or other interests—including personal beliefs.
The allegiance of news coverage should always, above all, be to the truth.
I’m not naive enough to believe these are all achievable, but I’m idealistic enough to hope that we should make a real effort to pursue, step-by-step, one-by-one.
What are yours? Let’s keep the conversation. Leave your suggestions in the comments section.