By LEE H. HAMILTON
I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to journalism, I’m a traditionalist. Old-fashioned, even. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that even while confidence in the media drops to new lows and Time magazine feels moved to wonder “Is Truth Dead?” on its cover, huge numbers of Americans have come to believe the media is not as authoritative as it once was.
Straightforward, responsible journalism is an indispensable public asset, a cornerstone of democratic life. This is threatened by the trends reshaping the media landscape. With less consensus around information and data, the cohesiveness of our society is diminished.
I’m not just talking about the rise of deliberately “reported” misinformation and disinformation. Some news outlets may not be as egregiously destructive of democratic values, but their urge to chase viewership and clicks at the expense of solid, fact-based reporting is doing us no favors.
Indeed, I think a lot of people want what I do and feel they’re not getting it: more facts and fewer opinions; more investigative reporters and fewer pundits; more substance and less fluff; more policy exploration and less politics; more respect for consumers and fewer efforts to manipulate them.
Is it really behind the times to expect journalists to seek accuracy above all? To pay attention to fairness? To strive to keep government honest and the voters informed? To check facts, use multiple sources, and welcome rigorous editing? I don’t think so.
Nor do I believe that infusing the news with a political agenda serves our society or news consumers. There may be no such thing as absolute objectivity, but you can sure strive to get as close as possible. Some news organizations do this. Too many don’t.
This is not to say that editorializing and expressing opinion have no place in journalism. But opinions should be separated from reporting. Too many journalists want to be pundits and not reporters. I’ve had any number tell me they’re in the business to express their own opinion rather than report the truth. When I turn on the television and find five or six pundits vociferously sharing their views, it’s diverting, but in the end I’m not that interested in what they think. I’d rather have someone tell me the facts so that I can form my own opinions.
In a media world in which opinion serves as the chief currency, rather than straight-ahead reporting of hard truths, politicians face less scrutiny of their statements and less accountability. They are succeeding at manipulating the media by using Twitter, refusing to hold press conferences, restricting questions and cameras, employing set speeches, and refusing to conduct a free-wheeling discussion of their opinions in front of the press.
The result is that significant policy decisions affecting millions of Americans are being drawn up with less scrutiny and promoted as beneficial without the clarifying debate that a representative democracy depends upon. Without it, we know less about our officials and legislators, what they think about the issues and what they do.
The picture is not entirely bleak. We are fortunate to retain a number of high-quality news organizations with first-rate reporters. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, The Economist, CNN, PBS, ProPublica, Politico, and other news organizations continue to dig deep and uphold high journalistic standards even in the face of the tsunami of media disruption that has taken place over the past decade. They and others have stepped up their games in recent months, partly in response to citizens desperate for hard-nosed and accurate reporting. And where they’ve gone astray, they’ve usually owned up to it quickly.
This is crucial, because we live in an era when solid reporting rooted in high standards of accuracy is not just a goal, but a vital, small-d democratic necessity. As consumers of news, we need to encourage the media to undertake it and hold its members to account when they stray. And we need to shoulder our responsibility for helping news organizations improve. After all, we’re the ones who turn to fluff rather than substance and consume only stories that reflect our own perspectives. As citizens, we need to step up our own game, too.
(Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)