News Literacy, Like Civic Literacy, Needs to Be Taught

I’m not alone in pointing out that our electorate suffers from a lack of civics literacy. Surveys have shown, for example, that a majority of Americans can’t name the three branches of government and don’t know that they are co-equal.

I suggest, however, that we also need to promote news literacy. The lack of knowledge about professional journalism demonstrates this need. Most people don’t understand the difference between straight news articles and columns. They think a news article is biased when the reporter quotes someone who expresses an opinion they disagree with, ignoring how the same article quoted opinions they do agree with.  But an article that quotes only one side of an issue is not a news article at all. It is an opinion piece, and such pieces are clearly identified as opinion in a newspaper that adheres to journalistic principles.

Society would benefit from having the principles of journalism taught in America’s schools. The following is copied and pasted from www.EthicalJournalismNetwork.org.

Five Core Principles of Journalism

1. Truth and Accuracy

Journalists cannot always guarantee ‘truth’, but getting the facts right is the cardinal principle of journalism. We should always strive for accuracy, give all the relevant facts we have and ensure that they have been checked. When we cannot corroborate information we should say so.

2. Independence

Journalists must be independent voices; we should not act, formally or informally, on behalf of special interests whether political, corporate or cultural. We should declare to our editors – or the audience – any of our political affiliations, financial arrangements or other personal information that might constitute a conflict of interest.

3. Fairness and Impartiality

Most stories have at least two sides. While there is no obligation to present every side in every piece, stories should be balanced and add context. Objectivity is not always possible, and may not always be desirable (in the face for example of brutality or inhumanity), but impartial reporting builds trust and confidence.

4. Humanity

Journalists should do no harm. What we publish or broadcast may be hurtful, but we should be aware of the impact of our words and images on the lives of others.

5. Accountability

A sure sign of professionalism and responsible journalism is the ability to hold ourselves accountable. When we commit errors we must correct them and our expressions of regret must be sincere not cynical. We listen to the concerns of our audience. We may not change what readers write or say but we will always provide remedies when we are unfair.


Does journalism need new guidelines?

EJN supporters do not believe that we need to add new rules to regulate journalists and their work in addition to the responsibilities outlined above, but we do support the creation of a legal and social framework, that encourages journalists to respect and follow the established values of their craft.

In doing so, journalists and traditional media, will put themselves in a position to be provide leadership about what constitutes ethical freedom of expression. What is good for journalism is also good for others who use the Internet or online media for public communications.

Accountable Journalism

This collaborative project aims to be the world’s largest collection of ethical codes of conduct and press organisations.

The AccountableJournalism.org website has been developed as a resource to on global media ethics and regulation systems, and provides advice on ethical reporting and dealing with hate speech.

Visit the Accountable Journalism database of codes of media ethics

Reflections on the State of Journalism & Saving Local Newspapers

Regular readers may recall that my first career was that of a professional journalist, trained on the city desk of the Washington Post. Committed as I am to sound journalism, I am concerned with both the loss of newspapers around the country and the unrelenting assault on the media by the President.

Free and healthy newspapers are essential to a democratic society, which is why the free press is embedded in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  They’re our watchdogs.

We can all be proud of how the media have kept us informed and, frankly, kept their cool in the hostile “enemy of the people” environment fostered by the current occupant of the White House, who labels any coverage that doesn’t flatter him “fake news” without providing a specific response to the subject at hand. Most upsetting is the portrayal of straight news reporting as biased.

The sad fact is that the general public lacks journalistic literacy. Specifically, readers (and non-readers) conflate news articles with columns and editorials. Because the New York Times and the Washington Post, for example, criticize the President editorially, readers too readily attribute that bias to the news pages, which is simply wrong.

A core principle of news reporting is “no unattributed facts or opinions.” Of course, a reporter uses his or her discretion as to which facts and opinions are included, but if, for example, an impeachment witness states facts or opinions derogatory of the President, reporting the testimony is straight news, and a good reporter will seek a response from the President.  But labeling such an article “fake news” or “a lie” is not a denial, it is a refusal to refute the testimony. 

I know that some Trump supporters will say “hogwash” to me asserting that straight news articles are unbiased, but that only proves the point I have made above. America’s newspapers would do us all a favor if they eliminated columns and editorials and printed only straight news articles and letters to the editor. Attacks on the media by the President are made more believable because of the inability of too many readers to distinguish news articles from columns and editorials.

TV networks also contribute to this conflating of news and opinion. Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all have daytime news programs, but they devote evening hours to personal opinion. You don’t see that on the three broadcast networks.

Financial health is another serious problem. While the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Washington Post are all thriving, too many local newspapers are downsizing and going out of business. We need some billionaires committed to journalistic standards to rescue them from owners interested only in profit.

My Cable News Viewing Recommendations

As a follow-up to last week’s item about our “Post-Factual Era” coming to an end, I have two cable viewing recommendations for readers wanting to understand current political events.

1)   Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.  Although CNN is my weekday viewing choice, I record this show for viewing on Sunday. I’m impressed with Chris’s fair questioning of guests from both parties and his choice of panelists for political discussions.

2)  Reliable Sources. This Sunday morning program on CNN is all about the media and is essential viewing in this error of “fake news” claims from both sides of the political divide. I recommend subscribing to this program’s daily email newsletter, which you can do at www.ReliableSources.com

In Defense of Journalists — They’re Working for You!

I’ve written about the rules of journalism before. (See my Feb. 2, 2017, column at JimSmithColumns.com.) Being a journalist myself, educated in the importance of keeping personal opinion out of news articles, as distinct from columns or editorials, it continues to bother me that the general public doesn’t recognize these distinctions.  Because of that, it’s too easy to dismiss factual news articles as “fake” based on a publication’s editorial position.

Yes, the Washington Post and New York Times express liberal positions in their editorials and many op-ed columns, but the news writers are solid professionals who report just the facts, uncolored by their own or their editorial board’s positions on a given topic. 

While tradition may dictate that each newspaper have opinion pages vs. news pages, it doesn’t have to be that way. I think that newspapers might do themselves, their readers and society a favor by deleting editorial and op-ed pages and publishing only signed letters to the editor.