Don Gale: Lazy journalism leads to a misinformed citizenry

The survival of democracy depends on well-informed citizens.

Opinion Placeholder 2

Lazy journalism. News sources are compromised by lazy journalism. Fox News journalists are lazy by definition. Commentators know what they are going to say before they begin gathering what they call “news.” They rarely attempt balanced information. The same is true for most news sources on the internet.

Sadly, similar compromises exist for many once reliable sources of news – newspapers, radio, television. Few journalists go to the trouble of tracking down multiple sources. Instead, they quote extensively or broadcast live opinions of one individual and consider news gathering complete. They also seem to think the live voice of one “expert” should satisfy readers or listeners. Reporters and editors are often deceived by the capabilities of modern technology into trading journalistic balance for “live” immediacy.

Good journalists do not develop news stories from contacts with a single “expert.” Neither do they pretend that interviewing one individual on air for two minutes is a news story. Instead, good journalists interview five sources with five different points of view, then summarize the conversations in a thirty second report.

And when was the last time you read or heard a news story where the first paragraph — or any paragraph — included journalism’s traditional “who, what, when, where, and why” summation?

Some reporters and editors believe a picture is worth a thousand words. But our species invented language because pictures proved inadequate for sharing information from person to person or from place to place or from time to time. Photos are marvelous additions to journalistic completeness, but no photo can gather data, share information or pose questions the way language does. No photo can inform consumers about how the state Legislature ignores the needs of education or how city governments use road maintenance money for less pressing needs.

One manifestation of lazy journalism is journalists interviewing other journalists, a practice especially prevalent on national radio. Yes, journalists should talk to one another, but doing so on air is a public confession of professional inadequacy. A primary goal of a good journalist should be to build her own credibility, not lean on the credibility of others.

Readers, listeners and viewers are more likely to attach credibility to a familiar, respected journalist than to a distant reporter or a single “expert” – provided the journalist has worked hard to establish her or his credibility.

Too much journalism today is essay writing, a skill introduced in third or fourth grade. But journalists are not authors. They’re daily historians, not long-term researchers. They’re gatherers of opinion, not unlabeled sources of opinion. They’re facilitators of compromise, not proponents of viewpoints.

Good journalists are not satisfied with one or two sources, however popular those sources may be. Good journalists seek three or four credible sources with three or four ideas about the question at hand. They leave it up to readers or listeners to sort out the differences. Anything else is lazy journalism.

Sadly, the narrow populism of social media news has put more than half the news organizations in America out of business, has forced newsrooms to shrink reporting staffs and has eliminated functional editors who critique every story before it’s printed or broadcast.

It’s true, also, that Amazon, Walmart and other absentee retailers have virtually eliminated the local advertising base that once supported home-based journalism. And greedy conglomerate media groups have bought up hundreds of local news outlets.

But that does not mean owners, editors and reporters should compromise the standards of quality journalism. It does not mean discerning readers, listeners and viewers should be condemned to populist taste or news by opinion surveys. It does not mean that the nation should be dragged down because citizens are unable to trust news sources.

The survival of democracy depends on well-informed citizens. That requires credible news sources, both local and national. Lazy journalism leads to citizen ignorance.

Thomas Jefferson said it best: “A nation that expects to be ignorant and free ... expects what never was and never will be.”

Don Gale.

Don Gale has practiced lazy journalism in Utah for decades, but all 7,500 of his commentaries were labeled “editorial” or “opinion.”