“What is news?” asked our teacher in the very first news reporting class during my Masters in Journalism program. “Can you explain it simply?” she continued. Everyone had a thing or two to say, long sentences, lot of details, when finally, the teacher said, “When a dog bites a man, that’s not news, but when a man bites a dog, THAT is news.” As simple as that maxim may sound, it explained the idea of this complex term exquisitely.
In the same class, we were taught the importance of journalism and press in a free society as the Fourth Estate. This term was first used in 1787 by Edmund Burke, who reportedly said that “there were three Estates…but in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
The press is called the fourth estate usually because the journalists observe the political process and make sure the participants do not exploit the democratic system. The institution of journalism has had its eyes on the government and its policies and has always served as the voice of the people, making it the backbone of a free and democratic society.
Journalism was considered a sacred institution, and this profession was an honorable one, but that is the past now. That righteous status has been brutally dented by the recent “Fake News” tag enforced on it. How did we reach here and what led to this devastating decline in the press approval ratings?
In 2018, a significant fraction of Americans have a negative view of the media and believe news coverage is more biased than ever. The institution that has the exemplary and groundbreaking work like the Pentagon papers leak (1971), Watergate scandal (1972), NSA surveillance (as recently as 2013), etc. to back itself, is crumbling under the heavy weight of a two-word hashtag #FakeNews. This two-word hashtag has become one of the biggest political weapons for the president of the United States, his surrogates and supporters, and they don’t leave any stone unturned to attack the institution of journalism.
It’s not that the journalists have lost the appetite for investigative reporting; in fact, the last year and a half has been quite remarkable for news in terms of investigative journalism. The Harvey Weinstein story came to the limelight all thanks to the brilliant investigative journalism by The New York Times and The New Yorker. This excellent reporting that lead to the inception of #MeToo movement won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize.
Washington Post changed the course of Alabama senate race by exposing the GOP candidate Roy Moore. Then there was reporting about the infamous Dossier, Trump tower meeting, Tom Price’s use of chartered aircraft, and a ton of stories around the Trump and Robert Mueller investigation based on leaks and sources. So, if the journalists are trying their best to be the voice of the people by holding people in powerful positions accountable for their actions and motives, why are people not buying it?
I will go back to my first day in the journalism class and take the same example of a “man biting a dog.” Let us assume that a man bit a dog. It is a big news story, and every reporter would love to get the scoop. In normal circumstances, the journalists follow their lead and collect all the facts from the spot, from witnesses, from authorities, and from their sources. They put all these facts together in a story, and people read it. End of story! But that is not the case in 2018.
The press is polarized, different media outlets would take these same set of facts and skew them in such a way that it pleases their audience or readers based on their left or right leaning stances, although there have always been a few organizations that hold this institution sacred and stay dead center in their reporting. What is different in 2018 is Twitter, it’s 280 characters and the heavyweight hashtags.
When journalists report the FACTS about this “man biting a dog,” and if those FACTS don’t align with the message, policies, and base of the POTUS, the most powerful man in the world takes on Twitter and within 280 characters blatantly discredits their story and facts as lies, exonerates the man as innocent and puts the blame on the dog, questions their sources as imaginary characters and labels their institution as #FakeNews.
This completely false narrative is then backed by his surrogates in the media community on other platforms like TV, print and digital news, and when you repeat a lie again and again, it creates the illusion of truth. Millions of people read these tweets and show their solidarity by retweeting or pressing the hollow heart attached to that tweet. They also watch his surrogates on TV discrediting the actual facts about the dog and the man by twisting themselves in pretzels and defending the president’s tweet and his stance.
So, ultimately this obvious murder of the facts becomes a reality for his base. Although journalists try to fact check this false narrative, it doesn’t matter to those people who believe it, because they don’t like to watch the news channels or read the newspapers that question their leader or any stance he takes.
To be honest, there have been a few stories in 2017 and 2018 that were inaccurately reported by media outlets and were later retracted, clarified or corrected. In some instances, the journalists were suspended while as at times the POTUS asked for them to be fired.
Journalists are human beings, and they can make mistakes, sometimes genuine ones and at times sloppy ones, but in the times of the #FakeNews narrative, they can’t afford to make any error. Every single error they make weakens the institution of journalism and adds fuel to the rising fire of #FakeNews narrative. These people blow these few mistakes out of proportion, repeat them again and again to demean the institution of journalism. They raise questions about these few errors made by journalists, but they unashamedly defend more than 3,000 false or misleading statements (according to Washington Post) made by the POTUS since he took office.
What can the journalists do to save the institution of journalism that is gasping for air? Well, apparently you can’t afford to make a mistake. For now, you have to forget that you are human beings because a few missteps can end the sanctity of this institution that is so dear to you and so significant for the whole society.
Dear journalists, you are walking on the tightrope, and the reputation of the institution of journalism is in your hands. Even though arrows are being shot at you from every side, you can’t afford to lose focus. You have set on this journey, and there is no turning back, you must keep going. You are being intimidated and threatened that your press credentials will be revoked, but you must continue asking questions, and I hope and pray that you strike the right balance on this tightrope.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.