Archive for March, 2014

Where Has All the Objective Reporting Gone?

Last week I had a long telephone conversation with my cousin, pastor of a Catholic church in Chicago. During the course of the conversation he happened to mention that he is unable to listen to network or cable news, because he majored in journalism at the University of Southern Illinois. Before entering the seminary, he worked in that field. Broadcast news is nothing like what he was taught.

He and I are not the first nor the only ones to decry the lack of objectivity of broadcast news reporting. It is blatant. Although I never earned a journalism degree, I did study expository writing from grade school through university. The foundation of report-writing is objectivity. I was told you are not writing a personal essay; you are writing a report: a fundamental distinction. The report aims to answer objectively with hard evidence the five W questions–what, where, when, who, and why; plus how. In the report, use of the personal pronoun “I” is scrupulously omitted. Your opinion is for the op-ed page, not for the news report.

That is why I cringe every time I hear Anderson Cooper utter “I can’t imagine how you are holding up!” It is not his place to imagine; it is his place to report. I cringe too when he utters, “That’s incredible . . . amazing!” These, of course, are his personal feelings. The audience doesn’t need that either. Then we have Erin Burnett with her inane blatherings. Motor mouth emoting as she asks long-winded questions laced with her inner angst. I challenge someone to keep a stroke tally of every time these news anchors or others of their ilk use “I” during their interviews.

Speech training was also part of the journalism curriculum. Broadcasters are supposed to speak in a clear, calm, even, objective tone; so as not to be perceived as carrying any emotional bias. What do we hear from cable and network news announcers? Strident, emotion-filled deliveries and rude interruptions injecting their own thoughts and opinions when they are interviewing someone. Please, Piers Morgan, bring the individuals representing different points-of-view onto your program, but please allow them to present their argument while you keep your opinions to yourself. You can probe them on faulty logic or questionable facts, without making the program your personal soap-box.

Is it, God forbid, that Americans don’t have the capacity to sort out logical fallacies and specious arguments to form an educated opinion of their own? I tremble to think television with its info-entertainment fails to educate in the same way that the American public school system has failed to educate. The highest recorded SAT scores were in 1970. Since then, by all measurements students in the United States lag far behind both China and European countries in academic achievement.

The channel can always be switched. After all, our vaunted democracy grants us that freedom. There are venues for objectivity: PBS News Hour, RT cable channel, Democracy Now, Al Jazeera. They actually cover in detail what is happening in other countries. Rather refreshing after American 24-hour coverage of the latest celebrity scandal. How many times is it necessary to report (and speculate on) someone dead in the bathtub of a drug overdose? Judy Woodruff and Hari Sreenivasan, Amy Goodman and Juan González deliver the news in the objective tone that I look for in news reporting. Does anyone remember how Walter Cronkite delivered the news?

I also like that these aforementioned news anchors are not Barbie and Ken dolls. Too often news anchors that Fox and CNN parade out, are expected to possess the physical comeliness of movie actors and actresses or they do not qualify for the part. I like that Judy and Amy are not beauty queens and probably were not cheer leaders in high school.

As an author, I get uneasy looking at all the pretty purveyors of the news (I shall not call them broadcast journalists. That would dignify unnecessarily what they do). The trend over recent decades is to make an author photo obligatory on a book jacket. The author with a new book out may have a leg up on the market if he or she also happens to be good-looking, especially if those appearances on television to plug the book are to have maximum effect. Will the Orwellian day come when being good-looking is also obligatory for the best-selling author? But have no fear, the plain author can have a Hollywood make-over too.

So where has all the objective reporting gone? It has gone Hollywood.