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Business Casual: Targets and Truths

Events of this past fall – the Kavanaugh hearings in D.C., the midterm elections and even state and local campaigns here in Georgia – have unleashed a wide range of fears, concerns and predictably, gratuitous attacks on “the media.”

Such a large, impersonal and convenient target – safe to condemn with the broadest brush possible.

And why not? The president calls the media “the enemy of the people,” and regularly uses the term “fake news” to characterize something he dislikes.

Never mind that the media can include the entire News York Times staff, your local TV meteorologist, correspondents in war zones and reporters covering city council meetings, as well as some nameless blogger sitting in his – or her – mother’s basement hunched over a computer.

But how handy to have that nice big target to aim for any time you are distressed by current events and the assurance that, if challenged, you can always fall back on, “Well, not all of them.”

I suspect most journalists have had, as I have, the experience of a friend or family member referencing the media – “you know how they are,” or “they make up stuff.”

When they are called on it, the response is usually, “Oh, not you …”

But you know what? Yes, me.

I am a proud member of the media and have been for many years. I have never “made up” anything or created anything resembling “fake news.” Never observed a colleague doing so. Never been asked to deliberately falsify anything by any of the editors or publishers I’ve worked for, never asked it of any of the writers and editors who have worked for me.

My byline accompanies everything I write; I have no place to hide and no reason to want to do so. I don’t expect blanket agreement; I appreciate thoughtful criticism and comments – especially when the critics identify themselves rather than taking refuge in anonymous name-calling.

When I have become aware of errors – made by me personally or by someone else at a publication where I have had responsibility – they were (and are) acknowledged and corrected. But …

I’m not blind to the shortcomings of my profession and I am certainly aware that the general public does not always hold it in high esteem.

A 2017 Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy found that 43 percent of all Americans have a negative view of the news media; 33 percent have a positive view; and 23 percent are neutral.

Some 66 percent of Americans say most news media do not do a good job of separating fact from opinion. The study also indicates that most adults are concerned about “fake news,” but that their definitions of the term vary widely.

The rise of the internet, the surfeit of cable TV programming, the proliferation of social media and the changes in news organizations’ ownership all have played a part. But so has the sluggish response of mainstream media to these changes and the defensive posture of many journalistic practitioners – myself included. There’s also been a failure to come up with tactics and techniques that reinforce the old, solid values of a noble profession but address the new realities of how citizens receive and perceive information.

There is clearly work to be done – in the newsroom and the business office. Most journalists I know have endeavored to sharpen their reporting and editing skills; editors are intensifying their fact-checking procedures. I believe many news outlets – broadcast and online in particular – can do a better job of distinguishing between reported fact and individual opinion.

I want to believe the bean counters are coming to understand that accurate, reliable, incisive reporting is worth investing in. That the news is too important to be treated as a commodity, like widgets. It is heartening that millennials are increasingly subscribing to reputable print and online publications.

But what really gives me hope is what I am seeing and hearing from aspiring journalists. I am fortunate in being able to spend time with young people at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, where I was a student many years ago, and at VOX Teen Communications, an Atlanta-based program for high school students.

They don’t ask how to perpetuate fake news or hide the truth. They talk about ideas, ideals and challenges. They want to make a difference as they report and share worthwhile stories, and they want to do it with enthusiasm, accuracy and integrity.

That works for me.

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