The president of the United States and his chief adviser both called America’s news media “the opposition party” in interviews this week. As I prepare to start a new semester with my journalism students in the days ahead, I anticipate them asking me what a journalist’s role is in this country right now.
And I am so ready with my answer.
Let’s start with the more reasonable question: Do some news media outlets have a liberal or conservative bias? The answer there is sure, but how one uncovers that bias is more subtle. If a news outlet has a liberal or conservative opinion staff, this just means that the opinion writers and commentators are liberal or conservative – not the news reporters themselves. Gail Collins of The New York Times is a liberal columnist, while George Will of The Washington Post is conservative, and they will always be so. Both of those newspapers have a more liberal op-ed page, while a publication like The Wall Street Journal has a more conservative opinion page. But again, that’s just one section of the news outlet’s coverage.
Biased news reporting is much more important to detect, as this means the publication is trying to influence you as it reports. In looking for this, it’s important to study the types of stories the news outlets are choosing to pursue, not the material they gather from that reporting. For instance, when my seniors interviewed students around the country asking their opinions of the new presidential administration, this was balanced (and well-executed) reporting. The fact that more teens and young adults were critical of the new president than complimentary of him was more a result of the average young adult’s political persuasion, rather than any bias on the part of my students. However, if my students had gone out of their way to look for Trump opponents, that would have indicated a liberal bias in the reporting.
In the 21st century, we have seen changes in the presentation of news coverage that requires the consumer to pay more attention to whether or not a news outlet is biased in its reporting. The cable news networks, for instance, go from reporting a story to gathering pundits’ opinions so quickly that news and commentary may feel like they’re blending together, while technically they may not be. On some reputable news outlets’ websites, headlines for opinion stories are listed next to headlines for news stories, and this can lead a reader to think the website is trying to force an opinion, when in fact it just has a messy homepage. And, of course, there are many other nascent news websites that are biased in every way, filled mostly with opinion-based reporting and making no apologies for it. These publications exist to meet the consumer demand for news that reaffirms the political beliefs the readers or viewers already had.
But let’s get back to those news sources that have been considered “reputable” for many years – the major networks, CNN, The Times, Post, Journal and so many others. They are taking a lot of heat for their coverage of the new administration right now, and that will continue. The reason for this is not because they are revealing a liberal bias. The issue here is much more basic, and it’s completely defensible: The news media has a democracy bias. The First Amendment, which gives them the right to investigate the news and report it freely, is a pillar of the ideals that guide our country. We entrust our journalists to pay close attention to these ideals, since their very existence is representative of these freedoms.
Right now, the new administration is altering the way we approach democracy. There are individuals sitting in airports as I write this, unable to re-enter the United States because of new rules that regulate who gets to come here and who does not. There is a country south of ours that is preparing for U.S.-ordered construction of a wall between it and America. When our government changes the way our democracy is carried out and presented to the world, our news media have the responsibility to cover the hell out of that. For reporters, this means asking tough questions, yet not telling the reader what to think. For opinion writers, it means writing whatever they believe, with evidence to support their points. For publishers, it means spending more money on overtime and hiring of more reporters, because if we don’t cover the mechanisms of democracy while the wheels are being re-oriented, then American journalism has no purpose.
So what is a journalist’s role in America today, class? It is what it has always been – to gather, write, edit and spread the news. But sometimes, high-quality news coverage can help us through our deepest crises. When Edward R. Murrow asked tough questions of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, the stakes were high. When Walter Cronkite, David Halberstam and many others reported vividly about Vietnam in the 1960s, the stakes were high. When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein outworked the country in covering Watergate in the 1970s, the stakes were high. Right now, in America, 2017, the stakes are high again.
So “opposition party,” really? I do beg to differ, Mr. President. If your goal is to shuffle the deck on democracy, I really need to know how that’s going down. Your tweets do not suffice. I need to read the news. And my students need their reporter’s pads. There are questions to ask, and responsibilities to fulfill.