The President of the United States is not impressed with the way that much of the current news media operates. Shouting matches between the President and journalists are erupting daily; the journalists claim a breach of rights, and Trump works to build his #fakenews hashtag. The climate of the U.S. media is coming to a head in a volatile situation that is murky at best.
The New York Times decided to use this year’s Academy Awards ceremony to make their position known. Their 30-second ad pointed out how difficult it is to find truth in a sea of media and states “The truth is more important now than ever.” The ad sparked commentary from Trump himself and suggestions that the newspaper missed the mark with the advertisement, just like they missed all the warning signs that Trump would win the election. Whether that’s true or not, the Times were right about one thing: The truth is hard to find but it shouldn’t be. After all, a free and unbiased media is integral to our way of life.
The purpose of the news media is to seek out the truth. A journalist takes that truth and presents it in a concise and coherent manner to the public. Regardless of who pays the bills — for example, CBC is funded by Canadian tax dollars and The Brock Press is funded through, primarily, student fees, it is the responsibility of any newspaper, television news station, online news publication, etc., to tell the truth and to tell it well. And that starts with accountability.
Journalists ask the tough questions. When Trump signed an executive order making changes to immigration laws in the U.S., many journalists called him out for what he was really doing, which was banning Muslims from entering the U.S.. Worse still, he was banning only those from countries in which he did not have business dealings. While this is not the message that the Trump administration wanted to present to the world, it was important that the people of the US know what was really happening from other perspectives.
When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went back on his promises to make changes to the Canadian electoral system, some journalists pointed out how that might benefit him and his party because the Liberal government had been elected based on the old system and might not have been if a new system had been in place. Alternatively, other journalists critiqued Trudeau for going against his promises, and that is what journalism is all about: presenting various perspectives to the public so that they can choose what to believe on their own terms.
Journalists and the news media hold public figures accountable for their statements, promises, and even private actions. Our job is to make sure they don’t say one thing and do another.
Journalists cannot simply smile, nod and repeat what they are told. If that were true, The Brock Press would be reporting that climate change is fake, the earth is flat, and unicorns are real, and paying almost $400 for a Brock parking pass is peachy, among other untruths. What journalists really do is speak to multiple people on different sides of a story and filter out the gossip and hearsay from actual supportable facts. For example, reporting only what the Liberal party says is not presenting all sides of the story. A journalist would speak to a representative of the Conservative party and the NDP as well to get their side. Political attack ads and the rumour mill can present information that might be taken out of context, changing public perception.
While journalists might have their own opinions on a subject, it shouldn’t stop them from seeking out as many voices as they can in order to present the clearest picture of what is truly going on. The journalist’s goal is not to make decisions for the public, people can, and will, do that for themselves. The goal is to give them all of the information they need to make those decisions. When it comes to politics, that means allowing all parties to present their stance on any particular subject. When it comes to trans rights, it means allowing trans people to speak for themselves. When it comes to wars it means looking at both the causes and fall out.
As the trenches of digital information grow larger, and the average workday for North Americans increases, there simply isn’t time for a regular person with a regular job and a regular life to look up everything a politician, public figure, or the representative of a company says. People need to get on with their day and don’t really have time to worry that those people might be misleading them. That’s where journalists come in. Our job is fact checking. When someone in a position of authority says that the wage gap ‑— the difference in pay between men and women based solely on gender — doesn’t exist, journalists report on peer-reviewed studies that say that isn’t true. When a high profile celebrity says vaccinations cause autism, journalists find experts who disagree.
It is completely normal for people to assume that the people in power are telling them the truth. It is a journalist’s job to hold those people accountable for the times when they don’t. Facts are facts and there is no alternative.
Democracy as we know it is based on the idea that common people know what’s going on from day to day. The truth of the matter is that most people don’t. There are people who might take advantage of that. The free media serves as the connection between what’s going on in your own life and what’s going on in the wider world. By always pursuing truth, the media provides a check on claims by governments, gossip, and flat out lies. Newspapers may go out of business, questions may be ignored, but good journalists will continue to fight for that pursuit.