Journalists are tasked with huge responsibilities. Report only the facts. Report both sides of the story. Be objective. Inform the public of what is happening in the community. Support claims with tangible evidence.
These are the civic, democratic duties of journalists, but what happens when you take the perspective of journalism as a business and journalists as simple professionals trying to make a living?
“Not only does [journalism] protect the people, but also the political integrity of our society, as it participates in ensuring that what is said in the public space can be used to make informed decisions,” says journalist Marc Cataford.
As Cataford suggests, a journalist’s job is to find all sides of the story, present the facts, and let readers discern their own beliefs or opinions. Their job isn’t to “create the news,” it’s to report the news. However, can journalists really handle so much responsibility? What happens when the other side of the story isn’t shocking or exciting enough to make audiences read about it?
Being a journalist, despite all the standards associated with the profession, is still just a profession. Journalists do their best to produce stories their bosses will find newsworthy, or “interesting enough to the general public to warrant reporting,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. That may mean one side of the story gets more coverage than the other.
Think back to several months ago when Dallas saw protesters, rioters and looters swarming the streets of downtown in response to George Floyd’s death by a police officer in Minneapolis.
Which stories did you see more often in the news – print, digital or broadcast – stories about peaceful protests or stories about protesters smashing windows of businesses and cars? You probably saw more coverage about the protests that ended in rubber bullets flying through the crowds and teargas nightmares. Why is that?
It’s no simple task covering both sides of the story. As a journalist myself, when I sit down to write a story, I think about what actually happened and then consider what will make my story interesting enough to read.
You see more coverage about violent protests because those are the stories that are interesting and invite readers to form opinions such as “violent protests are wrong,” or “police officers use so much force when fighting off protestors,” or “the President should do something about this.”
If you read a story about a peaceful protest, all readers do is learn about an event that took place. Exciting and controversial stories are more effective in inviting readers to investigate the root of the cause and form their own opinions. Peaceful protests don’t really invite readers to do much other than read the story and go along with their days.
Around the time of these violent protests in Dallas, my father began asking me “Why are we only seeing news about the violent protests? They’re clearly not all violent.” He wondered how journalists could be so ignorant and self-serving to only provide news on violent protests.
I thought about his concerns for a long time and finally replied, “Because, dad, would you read a story that only told you about protesters walking down the street holding up signs and chanting?” My dad said no.
My father’s question began making me wonder why journalists cover one side of the story more than the other. Why are less controversial or conflicting stories read significantly less and don’t make it to the front page?
“Conflict and controversy attract our attention by highlighting problems or differences within the community,” says PBS.
Controversy is exciting. When journalists seek to cover Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, a lot of the coverage you see centers on her views on abortion, the main issue dividing Democrats and Republicans on the nominee. If you asked anyone walking down the street in downtown Dallas what Barrett’s major political views are, they’re more likely to mention her stance on abortion rights than anything else.
This is because Barrett’s views on abortion rights are controversial, exciting and relevant to current political discourse. Does that make journalists self-serving, knowing readers are more interested in how conflicting Trump’s nominee is on this particular issue and therefore focus on that single issue?
We are susceptible to getting “swept up” in both a story’s message and in the manner of its telling, according to psychologists Melanie Green and Timothy Brock. So, readers are likely to be more interested in the controversy of Barrett’s views on abortion rights rather than other, more typical views that don’t spark heated conversation. This kind of coverage easily gives readers something to comment on and form an opinion about.
Journalists work to persuade readers to keep reading and to find out more. Green and Brock suggest that the most important trait of a persuasive story is how engaging the story is. If this is true, doesn’t that mean both sides probably won’t be covered equally?
Journalism plays a vital role in democracy and public discourse, but it does so by storytelling; and storytelling can’t be completely objective and unbiased. Bill Kovach’s The Elements of Journalism, in fact, describes journalism as “storytelling with a purpose.”
Journalists know that readers are more likely to read a controversial story and form opinions than with a dry, fact-oriented story.
“The purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments,” says the American Press Institute.
Controversial and conflicting stories have more ability to shape and mold society. You may not hear about the non-controversial or already known and understood side of an issue, but that isn’t exactly what journalists are trying to do in the first place. Yes, journalists seek to inform the public, but interesting stories are more effective in persuading readers to form opinions that will influence their decisions.
Journalists can’t be entirely neutral when they already know what readers are specifically interested in at the moment.
The American Press Institute explains that “being impartial or neutral is not a core principle of journalism. Because the journalist must make decisions, he or she is not and cannot be objective.”
This further emphasizes the importance of readers doing their homework and paying attention to stories that don’t seem all that interesting or exciting. It isn’t necessarily one journalist’s job to report both sides of the story, it’s more so the reader’s job to seek out coverage on both sides of the story.
The news isn’t always newsworthy. That’s the harsh truth of news coverage. Individual journalists can present objective facts and truths on one side of the story and briefly summarize the other side, but it’s up to the reader to acknowledge that there are always more sides to a story.
When an issue has two sides, one more conflicting and the other more plain, readers are more likely to read stories on the more exciting side. This isn’t to say journalists shouldn’t cover both sides of the story; they should. However, journalists can’t balance reporting the truth of both sides and what’s interesting all at once.
Readers are going to continue seeing sensationalized headlines, but that means readers need to do more in seeking out the full story. Journalists will continue focusing on newsworthy content and inserting as much of the other side as possible. It’s up to the reader to find both sides layered in each story.
Journalists have a responsibility to inform the public, but journalism is still a business, the newsworthy side of an issue will always win readers’ attention and the whole story may not be that easy, or interesting, to uncover, but it’s up to readers to finish the job.