Newell: Troubling trend in news media as facts getting lost in opinion

How can consumers trust what we watch, read and hear?

Newell Normand
September 17, 2019 - 5:25 pm

Why is the New York Times, considered by many to be America's most prestigious newspaper, once again having to walk back a major story? The Grey Lady's opinion page in particular seems to be a stuck in a permanent cycle of scandal and embarrassment, reflected most recently by a bungled report about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's behavior during his college years at Yale. How did we get to a place where it's so hard to trust the news media?

Jeff McCall is a Professor of Media Studies at Depauw University in Indiana. Newell invited Jeff McCall onto his program Tuesday morning to discuss how the Kavanaugh story and the backlash to it shows how the modern news media is often failing its audience.

"It seems to be a troubling trend for me, especially as it relates to the New York Times," Newell began, "When critical elements are edited out of pieces... who knows where to go and what to believe any longer?"

"It's very hard to figure out where things are going with this particular story... I am disappointed in the Times," McCall responded. "The Times is a really important newspaper in this country, they are the primary news agenda setter for the whole nation. A lot of people in power read it, the network news organizations read it every morning."

"I read it religiously," Newell agreed. 

"When they take on that responsibility," McCall continued, "I think that means they have got to be more professional and set the standard for the whole industry. Clearly, over the last several years, we find evidence the Times is not doing its job very well. When you rush to deadline and you are not that concerned about getting things accurate, you're going to end up with these kinds of problems, walking things back or clarifying or whatever. I'm not saying there are no good journalists there, or they're not doing some other things well. This is not a baby-with-the-bathwater type thing, but they need to take their responsibility more seriously."

"How do you see this all rubbing up against the Constitution? When you think about the very reason we have this freedom of the press - there seems to be an undercurrent and a real friction going on right now in regard to reporters versus opinion writers, and protections for reporters," Newell asked, alluding to the fact that there is a lot of case law in this country that is meant to protect people from libel and slander, but there isn't much beyond that to make sure the hard news reporting that gets presented to our citizens is always sound.

"The Constitutional framers spent a lot of time trying to decide what the 'free press' would mean," McCall said. "When they created the First Amendment, they basically said the free press can do whatever they want, and Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press - they left it undefined. But I think that over 200 years, our culture in the United States has seemed to suggest that the media has a role to play, and people refer to it as the Fourth Estate of government. They play a role of informing the citizenry and holding the government accountable. It's hard to look at the First Amendment and say that shoddy reporting is unconstitutional or anything like that - in a sense, shoddy reporting is protected by the First Amendment... so we need to provide more cultural pressure on our news organizations to do the service we need them to do."

"I find that the line between news and opinion is getting blurred," Newell said. "Sometimes I think it's been completely and totally eliminated and it doesn't even exist at all! When news reporters are guests on a talk show and they start espousing opinions about a story they wrote - for example, I have news reporters on my show here and they appropriately point out when they are stating an opinion versus reporting the facts, but you don't see that on television much anymore."

"In television news, that line has been obliterated, especially on cable news," McCall agreed.

Traditional rules governing how stories get fact-checked and edited don't always hold up well in contemporary news rooms, where 24/7 coverage and a highly competitive digital news arena can mean cutting corners. Being first can take second place to being right.

"What's the rush to judgment?" Newell asked. "There's this mentality of 'I've got a news cycle and I've gotta fill it,' are we just going out there with semi-created news?"

"There is a lot of concoction - in a sense, all news is concocted, it's somebody's interpretation that this is important and something else isn't. And the approach to any story is a concoction of whatever's in the mind of the reporter. I tell my students in class that fairness is a skill, and you can be fair by practicing that - leaving out subjective wording and sensational aspects of a story. There's a big difference between saying Brett Kavanaugh was rowdy and drank too much beer in high school versus saying he's a sexual predator and he can't be on the Supreme Court."

To hear the entire conversation between Newell and Professor McCall, click the audio player below.

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