Villainizing journalists deters effective reporting

The+lack+of+exposure+to+the+reality+of+journalists+in+the+media+leads+audiences+to+believe+that+journalists+are+untrustworthy.

Udita Jonnala

The lack of exposure to the reality of journalists in the media leads audiences to believe that journalists are untrustworthy.

By Grace Yang, Ananda Mayuri Chakkenchath, and Ella Shen

In 1566, the Venetian government distributed its first monthly copy of “Notizie scritte” — a handwritten newsletter used to spread information about political, military and economic news to a wider audience. Today, news is no longer limited to one medium and is generally accessible to a vast number of people through various platforms. 

Since this evolution, the line between journalism and other types of information-sharing media has become blurred. Often, readers aren’t able to distinguish between them. What differentiates it is the way the information is gathered and spread. In simple terms, it’s the ethics that distinguish journalism from other types of media.

True Nature of Journalists

Many people don’t realize that journalists are required to follow certain ethical standards too; any good journalist would tell you that truth and accuracy are highly valued in every article, documentary and social media post. Obtaining facts, as well as staying fair and impartial, is necessary to achieve hard-earned credibility in the journalistic world. Yet, it’s easier said than done. 

“I don’t think it’s possible to not be biased,” Wildcat Tribune Advisor Rachel Decker said. “Journalism [is] really [about] moving away from this idea of non-bias, because it’s just not possible. People just have too many opinions. But at the very least, we’re providing not one, not two, but multiple perspectives on an idea. We’re letting the public make up their mind with the facts we’re giving you.” 

Typically called the “watchdogs of the government,” journalists strive to uncover truth and keep institutions accountable for the people. Articles are normally affiliated with a publishing organization, but accountability rests on each and every reporter’s shoulders. Anything from an accidental slip-up resulting in misinformation, to a single unethical reporter fabricating entire stories and interviews, can cause the credibility of a whole news organization to plummet. 

“Journalism doesn’t mean the end product,” Jill Tucker, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, stated, “but rather, the process that goes into that product and the standards that apply to that product.”

Which begs the question: how is the public supposed to understand the true nature of journalists, when no one ever tells the real truth?”

Another tenet of journalism is to minimize harm. Sometimes, reporting fair information can hurt the individuals involved. Finding the balance between privacy and the duty to report news can be challenging. Yet there are “reporters” out there who ignore all codes of conduct just to “report” news. 

“Paparazzi are doing a lot of things that are very harmful,” Decker said. “They’re following people into places that are supposed to be private … But I don’t think that’s journalism because there isn’t a big truth or important information that you’re trying to convey to the public that’s going to better their lives or inform them.”

However, the Pew Research Center reports that 51% of Americans believe that journalists don’t care about the people or the story they are reporting, and that we hurt democracy rather than protect it.

The ordinary American usually isn’t privy to the inside of a newsroom; their perception of journalists is limited to word of mouth, articles written by journalists, and of course, films. 

While some films try to depict journalists in their true forms (“Spotlight,” “All the President’s Men”), these films are the exception, and not the standard. Movies traditionally portray journalists as the villain, the greedy one-dimensional character who drags the hero’s name through the mud in hopes of a quick shot to fame. These characters are seen as people who will do anything for a story, even if it means compromising their ethics and harming their subjects (remember Rita Skeeter from the “Harry Potter” series?). 

And while these inaccurate portrayals may be acceptable in rare cases for jobs that are more well-known where people understand the difference between reality and fictionalization, the problem arises when the public doesn’t know the reality of a journalist — the high ethical standards that keep them accountable. “House M.D.,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Suits” all dramatize the job of a doctor or a lawyer, but people are able to discern between what occurs in the show and what is feasible in reality.

“It’s even little things like [the way] Hallmark movies depict journalists that contribute to a lot of the misconceptions about how we do our job and what it means to us to abide by the highest standard of ethics,” Tucker said. “Almost invariably the journalist lies about what they’re doing or doesn’t say who they are. Of course, for people with high ethical standards, this would never happen. We don’t lie about who we are.”

But the lack of exposure to the reality of journalists leads audiences to believe this narrative, which may be a root cause of the untrustworthy stigma around journalists. And when the flat characters films portray as journalists are all people get as representation, this results in a drastically negative influence on their perception of journalists.

It’s true that some film scenarios stem from instances in journalistic history that have actually occurred. Stephen Glass plagiarized a multitude of stories for the New Republic, as depicted in “Shattered Glass.” The Washington Post exposed a huge affair that caused President Nixon’s resignation, as dramatized in “All the President’s Men.”

Though not all journalists willingly promote false news as true or release a Watergate scandal every day, nevertheless, that’s how Hollywood generalizes them: the overly dramaticized hero or the lying, sabotaging villain. Singular incidents are placed into a long line of films, each one twisting the story more dramatically than the previous. Which begs the question: how is the public supposed to understand the true nature of journalists, when no one ever tells the real truth?

“I got some of my ideas about what I thought a journalist would look like [in movies],” Decker said. “I think I thought it was going to be a lot more thrilling, exciting and fast-paced, but journalism is actually very task-based and tedious.”

This idea of “tedious” derives from the reality that journalism is painstakingly organized- interviewing, fact checking, editing and fact checking. Journalism as a profession isn’t constantly surrounded by the intense, life-changing drama constantly seen in films, but is instead mundane because of its utmost importance of correctly releasing information. Journalists have the responsibility of informing the public, and as a result, we take this duty with more than just a grain of salt.

“Part of the reason for distrust is because [the public doesn’t] understand the steps you take to make sure that you got your facts right. The steps that you take to make sure that you don’t just talk to one person and then write a whole story based on that,” Dick Rogers, a retired writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and current writing coach for Contra Costa Spin, said. “You care about being fair. That’s not exciting stuff, unless you’re the one doing it. And if you’re on the outside [and] you’re not doing it, then you maybe don’t even see that part of [journalism].”

Rather than being the nosy, merciless Rita Skeeters that are portrayed in widespread media, most journalists value truth and fairness, and hope to benefit society through their work. And the great thing about having a student-run newspaper is that we can reach the minds of our community. We don’t need national recognition, nor a widespread viewership. We simply wish to report balanced, credible stories to our community. However, this perception of journalism as “bad” press isn’t purely the consumer’s fault. 

Concessions

Anti-press sentiment is a concept that has been part of this society for a very long time. Politicians since President George Washington have believed that the press is filled with lies. In fact, President Nixon replaced the term “press” to “media” to remove any type of emotional value. In his book “Before the Fall,” William Safire, a speechwriter for Nixon, stated “The press became ‘the media’ because the word had a manipulative, Madison Avenue, all-encompassing connotation.”

And this shift in view of the press as no longer being objective does come from a place of truth. Since the 1970s, an emphasis on analyzing the news has been broadcasted. The 5 W’s (who, what, when, where and why) that are built into journalists are often shadowed by the analysis of these 5 W’s. According to a RAND report, over the course of 28 years, there has been a gradual shift from traditional outlets of media to newer media, such as 24-hour cable. This shift has acted as an invitation for a different style of journalism to emerge — narrative journalism. 

Narrative journalism brings out an element that wasn’t previously available — a unique perspective on the same policies. Being able to narrate social and policy issues through personal points and subjective references allows for a more nuanced understanding of issues. However, this comes at the expense of information no longer being objective. 

Tucker explains that objective journalism in this day and age is hard to achieve: “I think the idea of objective journalism is just on its face false because nobody’s objective. We all have opinions. The question is whether you can set all those aside and create a story that is balanced and fair and accurate,” she stated. 

This allows people to form their opinion on the balanced stories that are presented. However, allowing people to form their own opinions based on the information present often leads to negative outcomes. 

“I think people don’t want to hear the other side. They tend to surround themselves with like-minded thinkers. When anybody challenges that, then they think that that person is evil. So journalists, like myself, who present more than one side to an issue are then considered bad, evil and wrong,” Tucker explained.

Nevertheless, the blame doesn’t just purely fall on to the people’s consumption of the news. The lack of objective journalism has contributed to an increase in politicized news. News outlets are more prone to publish articles that can get them more “stir” as the competition in the industry has tremendously increased. For example, it is easier to report about passing blame on which party has committed gerrymandering than to explain what gerrymandering is (the manipulation of an electoral constituency’s boundary to favor one party). This leads to news outlets taking advantage of constantly releasing politicized information that is then tailored by the readers to fit their agenda.

In today’s world, where information has increasingly become more accessible, this burden of giving out numerous perspectives is more important than ever. This is simply because when there is misinformation, it’s much easier for it to compound. 

As Rogers puts it, “negative information tends to multiply more quickly than factual and truthful information. And that’s a serious problem.”

Future Steps

The reason the idea of a “Notizie scritte” continued is purely because the public realized the importance of having an informed community. And the reason journalists write is to keep the public informed. For journalisms to evolve and continue delivering information, both parties involved need to be aware of their actions. 

The answer to a lot of the problems we are facing is simple. Journalists shouldn’t be glorified and blindly trusted. On the flip side, readers should research multiple credible sources themselves and make educated decisions based on the information given. 

However, we also shouldn’t be your enemy. We recognize that journalists can make mistakes in reporting, and we strive to minimize these errors and correct them immediately. But in turn, an audience that can recognize the reality beyond the fictionalized journalistic universe and into the true world of journalism should be the first step in bridging these gaps. 

This story was originally published on Wildcat Tribune on February 28, 2022.