What was it like to be a journalist before computers and social media?
Some readers are young enough that they might not realize that yes, there was a time when reporters didn't have the internet, and this was the not-so-distant past. If you were born after the advent of the internet, you might be under the mistaken impression that the internet is what journalists use to do their job. Surprise! It's not our primary tool.
What was it like when typewriters were the main vehicle for writing stories?
When microfiche was used instead of Google Search or Google News?
Consider that only the biggest newsrooms in the country, like the LA Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, even had computers in the 1980s--the rest of us had manual and electric typewriters even if our editors had a computer in their offices.
Finding and checking facts are far more complex than using Google, and old-school journalists use the internet as a secondary, not a primary source. So it's probably easier to start by explaining what journalism was not--is not.
It was not like the movie His Girl Friday (1940), a Hollywood screwball comedy, despite that there are some surprising, mild similarities in newsroom equipment, like the use of typewriters with ribbons, old wood desks, and surprisingly, similarities in clothing--sounds odd, I know--but it was true especially if you were female. What I mean by that is, there were so few female reporters on the job in the 1980s when I started in the news business, that we tended to be more than just reasonably well-dressed, even by today's TV broadcasting standards. I would in my 20s have my own TV show in the Boston area, but when I started in news and had my first solo byline in my local newspaper, I was 15 years old. A few months later, I'd turned 16 and started writing for the larger, regional newspaper in the area of Southern Massachusetts where I grew up. (Saying I was a go-getter back then would be an understatement). I actually did wear hats like Hildy did in the 1940 movie--though they were 1980s fashion and I had more of a penchant for high heels than hats.
The Main Difference
But what was the main difference in the news business from entertainment media?
- We reported facts.
- We cross-referenced what our sources told us
- We vetted those sources.
I still do all those things, even though I know not all reporters are in the habit of doing that as vigorously now, but the reporters I'm talking about who don't are working--most often--for entertainment publishers, not for news outlets. Reporters working for a news outlet adhere to the code of ethics and so do their outlets.
Don't misunderstand me, I'm not suggesting that facts are ignored at media outlets in the US and Europe--there are thousands of outlets worldwide--and I spend time on both continents. What I'm talking about are media entertainment channels, whether they be broadcast, online, or print, that imply with their biases--I call it entertainment news theater--that they are media news outlets when they're not. They're entertainment publishers. Those two are completely different things, and sadly, it's no longer easy to tell the difference but there are still many tools that can assist you in deciding, including whether a media company declares that it adheres to the journalist code of ethics. The United States publishing industry that is masquerading as news is dangerously overriding what United States Founding Father Thomas Jefferson asserted to James Madison in 1789.
The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write or otherwise to publish anything but false facts affecting injuriously the life, liberty, property, or reputation of others or affecting the peace of the confederacy with foreign nations. - Jefferson to Madison in 1789
When American cultural, social, and governmental policies regularly break the ideals and intentions that the founding fathers of the US laid down with the Declaration of Independence, we should not be concerned, we should be horrified.
Facts vs Misinformation, Objectivity vs Neutrality, and Bias
Years ago, it was easy to tell when tabloid news like the US National Enquirer, the UK's The Sun, or Germany's Bild--to use three international examples popular in the 1980s when I learned the ropes of a reporter's job--were relating stories that leaned more toward anecdotal-based evidence rather than toward fact-based evidence.
Not All Bias is Bad
Not all bias is inherently bad, however, particularly when reporting on ethics in government. An important distinction. Back then it was easier to see how any of the large US newspapers pledged to report accurate and fair data, like the Wall Street Journal, L.A. Times, Washington Post, or Boston Globe, as well as the UK's The Guardian or Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung were fact-based--and they still are. Facts don't change, but the truth is often an interpretation of facts, and knowing this, it is incumbent on the reader or viewer to check the sources they read, and also to read more than one source.
But why then do we hear all the time on network television and through many competing entertainment publishing channels, as well as through our relatives or friends via word-of-mouth--itself anecdotal--that the lines have blurred? Or we frequently hear the sentiment, "everything is fake news." Let's look more closely at those claims and what's causing them.
Does Fake News Really Exist?
Consider that the lines have blurred not simply because journalism itself has changed with time--and journalists are still held to a high standard via the Code of Ethics at all news outlets. Rather, it's due to corporate players who are not news organizations, but entertainment publishers who entered the media industry with the intent to steal market share through means that arguably skirt ethics, while at the same time implying to their readers--or viewers--that they are a news publisher when they are actually an entertainment publisher or entertainment network. Those two are not the same.
Knowing the difference between the two, and understanding your own bias is a large part of the study done by the Institute of Policy Research (IPR) at Northwestern University, which examines the public's understanding of whether something is news, entertainment, or a mixture of both.
That the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.” - Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776
It's also important to note that during the current pandemic, medical science reporting has come under fire by being attacked as if it were politics, often failing to take into account that science regarding a virus that is evolving and producing variants is part of how viruses work, in the same way any other pandemic of the past has spread, including the plague--except that the last time there was a plague we didn't have vaccines, we only had face masks, and that was what stopped it).
However, medical science and its findings are not based on anecdotal politics, but on empirical scientific data, which grows and evolves just as viruses do, and it's also key to know that a theory is nothing like a scientific theory, the latter meaning it is the best available scientific knowledge we have to date. Science evolves and grows over time.
The Value of Critical Thinking
This does not mean that the science of a scientific theory is wrong, it simply means we don't know every single detail about every scientific subject yet. Well, consider that we're still proofing things that Albert Einstein asserted decades ago and you'll have an idea why this is true. To assume that we can or will know every possible parameter of every topic scientifically and that it will stand still and never change is not only naive it's not physically feasible. To expect science to be unmoving, to expect branches of medicine and science not to report growth or change to the public, as it happens, and to responsibly publicize the new knowledge as it is occurring so the public can respond appropriately is not only unrealistic, it would be irresponsible, particularly during say a pandemic or a war.
To call science wrong or to try to couch scientific theory into the same category as a theory when they are not at all the same, is also irresponsible. The key is to have a reasonable and logical understanding of a topic and develop the ability to collect the current data that will assist you in growing your understanding of the developing science of a given topic as the topic itself expands and changes. This is the essence of why teachers become teachers--critical thinking skills.
It takes an investment of education and time to differentiate news from entertainment, one which the average person might not be willing to give up, since many receive their news through social media platforms like Facebook. And yet, willful ignorance is at the heart of many "fake news," "fake science," and "wokeness" identification finger-pointing performed by politicians and pundits as if it were theater. Many people enjoy reality tv shows, but that format has no place in fact-based news. The kind of thinking that motivates fake-news-theatrics is a cultural movement, and sadly, it is the same thinking that gave rise to the Nazi Party in Germany ahead of WW2 and is being used to tell Russian citizens and Republican Party members that the invasion of Ukraine and its UN-acknowledged war crimes against humanity are somehow not the problems of the United States and are a "territorial dispute," as Ron DeSantis stated earlier this week, and for which his fellow Republicans lambasted him for his lack of education in foreign policy.
We all live on the same blue ball, and tyranny has a cascading effect as we saw during WW2 and during the last United States election, as well, and it affects all of us, whether economically or culturally--or both.
The Danger of Anti-Democratic Rhetoric and Political Theater
There is an inherent danger to the anti-democracy movement in America, the European Union, and the rest of the free world if the population loses its ability to tell the difference between facts and someone's personal, biased 'truth' delivered as political theater. Remember that facts and truth are not the same things and deciding the level of underlying bias vs neutrality in both fact-checking and media bias goes a long way to increasing education and a much broader worldview.