Is it News, or is it Gossip?

INSIDE OF A DEMOCRACY, it is the job of pundits and reporters to critique the actions and decisions of local and national public servants. The media creates a buzz around an issue by amplifying the voices speaking to the issue. It doesn’t matter if the news outlet is local or national, independent or corporate, the goal is the same: distribution of ideas. By amplifying the various voices at various times, the media seeks to facilitate a conversation within the community over the issue. The main limitations to fulfilling this job, as a pundit/reporter, is 1) access to the voices relevant on any one issue, which is ever changing, and 2) what Readers can understand.

As much as the internet is an improvement on communication, news outlets have to fight a steady stream of content packaged to elicit an immediate emotional reaction from the public, instead of nuanced thought. All of social media is a popularity contest. In response, news outlets adapted.

In such an intellectual space, content packaged as shock material produces what business owners can count: pageviews and reshares over Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. 320 million Americans exist. The internet has fundamentally changed how information is distributed. News outlets struggle to be the distribution site for that information.

For all intents and purposes, social media itself has replaced what newspapers and televised news broadcasts used to do: facilitate a national conversation. While media outlets enjoy a reputation as a trusted brand name, in many cases, the general public is using said brand name in an argument over the facts of a regional case already well under discussion.

A simple google search can show how a small story, captured on a smartphone, gets “leaked” to an independent blog site, like the FreeThoughtProject, and goes viral, based on sheer shock value. [1] Before 24 hours have passed, the story finds itself being mentioned on cable news.

It’s as if newsroom editors don’t exist anymore. Is this news or gossip?

Media is needed to maintain some decorum. An editor is like a foreman, siphoning away the gossip from the actual facts. The goal is not just to talk, but to make a contribution to the clarity of a proposal or policy under discussion within the community. However, out of the need for traffic, few outlets can escape the need to publish what reads more like gossip, than substantive debate.

As a depressing example, the state of the national debate is so poor, while a presidential candidate, Jeb Bush criticized the Obama Administration’s foreign policy by saying the President and his aides use too many big words. [2]

Too many big words. Please let that sink in. Forget for a moment that President Obama was the editor of the Harvard Law Review, and therefore uses “big” words as par for the course, and let it really sink in that a certain segment of the population could not understand the President of the United States, who speaks the same language as they do, because of his vocabulary.

If the comments on social media are any indication of the quality of the national conversation, the media is facing insurmountable odds of ignorance just getting any message out. The standard taught inside schools of Journalism is a nice ideal. None of the local reporters I personally know intentionally spread misinformation or gossip. If any happens it is because they were crushed by the challenge of time. Local and national media are documenting the current moment to the very best human ability can. The idea that no matter how well the documentation is, it in no way captures the fullness of that moment is something nerds feed off of. And, yes, media persons are nerds. We are meaningful in the American experiment of democracy.

Yet, for its many failures to amplify certain voices or positions, the media is itself critiqued by those whose voices are amplified.

In late August, early September, then presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was at a New Hampshire campaign stop. He met a group of reporters and was asked, “Do you have a problem with the way that you are covered? Do you think it’s a winning issue to go after the media?”

Sanders answered, “Let me repeat this and thanks for asking the question. No. I don’t have a problem with the way I am being covered. Do I think I am being covered any better or worse than other candidate? I don’t. Has anyone ever heard me say that? Gee, I think you are being unfair to me. I’ve never said that. But this is what I will say. I want you to talk about and force discussion about climate change. Do you think you do that enough? I would like you to force discussion on poverty in America. I have talked over and over again that 51% of African American kids are unemployed or underemployed. Do you think that’s an important issue? I do. You gonna discuss it. So, what I am asking you to do is help me. I am not taking any of this personally. The American people want a discussion on the real issue. They don’t really care that Marco Rubio threw a football and hit some kid on the head. That’s not one of the real issue facing our society.” [3]

The old progressive voice from Vermont has a point.

Social media can dissect whether or not the question was bait, due to its bluntness or share the sentiment in all manner of creative ways. For doing so, Sanders’ message will get a boost within the gossip circles, as it should. The sentiment is shared by many.

Sanders echoes and earlier progressive voice, President John F. Kennedy. He made some remarks before the American Newspaper Publishers Association early in his Presidency.

“No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary. I am not asking your newspapers to support the Administration, but I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people. For I have complete confidence in the response and dedication of our citizens whenever they are fully informed. I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers – I welcome it.” [4]

It is that balance between gossip and actual facts that any news outlet fights to maintain. It is a challenge some very bright minds undertake as a service to their community. Like any job, it isn’t easy. The never-ending popularity contest gets tired quick. But, like anything else in society, the media is documenting the choices made by the members of the community. These are not our stories. They are the public.

Someone within society, or a group of people in society have to choose to become a voice.

The media cannot amplify a voice that isn’t there.

Words by Kokayi Nosakhere





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