Burt’s op-ed: ‘Time for news with a view’

The Virginian-Pilot today published the following op-ed by longtime CCJIG leader Burt St. John of Old Dominion.

Jon Stewart, in an offhand moment during a recent interview with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, remarked sarcastically, “I follow the polls, nothing else; I’m not an issues guy. I like numbers.”

Stewart, in his role as a “fake news” anchor, rarely misses an opportunity to take a jab at the dysfunctions of our news media. It was a timely comment, because today’s journalism, in the midst of the claims and counterclaims of the presidential election season, appears to be rediscovering that it has an obsession with facts.

Witness the journalistic outlets (both traditional and online) that, after each 2012 presidential debate, scurry to vet the data. Journalists pull apart statements concerning employment figures, number of new leases for oil and gas exploration, or the size of today’s U.S. Navy and then make pronouncements about which candidate is more or less truthful. And, of course, there’s the endless focus on daily poll data that may, or may not, turn out to be significant come Election Day.

Not surprisingly, this doubling down on facts and data has spurred some self-serving comments from journalists that this is a sign of a new vitality in journalism. Nothing can be further from the truth. Mainstream journalism, for more than 80 years, has demonstrated this predilection for gathering up data and facts, finding some way to substantiate such information and then serving it up to news consumers. That practice was a good start, but it never was enough.

The public, for decades, has repeatedly voiced its disenchantment with traditional, fact-focused journalism. And, at the risk of sounding a little paradoxical here, I’ll offer my own fact – polls for more than a decade have shown that more than half of Americans don’t find mainstream journalism reliable (a recent Gallup poll put the figure at 60 percent).

Why would Americans find a fact-focused press to be problematic? A large part of the problem is that today’s journalism does not adjust itself to a new paradigm: News consumers have an appetite for more than “just the facts.” They want news with a view. They seek out journalistic venues that help them situate the relevance of the news within their daily lives and also allow them to contribute their knowledge and perspectives. They find such information at online sites like the Voice of San Diego and Patch.Com, community-focused news operations that allow citizens to interject local knowledge into news accounts.

Such an approach can allow for richer and deeper coverage of ongoing concerns like education, health care, affordable housing, development and environmental concerns.

Granted, a too-credulous course correction toward “everyone is a journalist” can saddle the news with a subjectivity that imperils accuracy, spreads misinformation and promotes incivility.

However, today’s journalism has no choice – it must grapple with the fact that citizens have more ability than ever to offer renderings of what they consider news. As news with a view is increasingly valued by news consumers who, at times, act like news producers, traditional journalism must adjust its stance.

This means journalism must move beyond the mere recitation and checking of facts. Today’s news workers need to situate what those facts mean by placing them within a constellation of wider trendlines, cultural values and citizen perspectives.

For too long, institutional journalism has told news workers that the rules of the game mean sticking to disseminating data that was substantiated through authoritative voices. That equation is broken; understandings of what is news have changed. It’s time for every journalist to report the perspectives at play beyond the facts – time for every news worker to be “an issues guy.”

Burton St. John III, an associate professor of communication at Old Dominion University, was co-editor of the newly released book “News with a View: Essays on the Eclipse of Objectivity in Modern Journalism.” Email: bsaintjo@odu.edu.

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