I’ve been contemplating for a long time the disconnect between news outlets and their audiences/readers.
You know, this is the whole Fake News thing and mistrust of the media.
I’ve taken a stab at explaining how this paper, particularly, approaches news reporting versus the public’s understanding – usually misunderstanding – of the purpose and meaning of what they read.
I’ve also attempted to to write explainers that I’ve metaphorically pecked out on the keys of a my imaginary typewriter transferring my thoughts onto my fictitious sheet of 8.5″ by 11″ paper before yanking it out from the non-existent roller accompanied by an unheard screech and an imagined crumpling before being dumped disgustedly into my deskside trash bin (that last item does exist). Yes, readers, I am old enough to have actually typed out an opinion piece on a typewriter.
(Apologies for that sudden attempted literary outburst.)
But regardless of the type of keyboard I’ve been hunched over – electronic, mechanical or metaphorical – it’s still not been easy to write about this topic, despite my deep concern about it. People are reading things and it is eliciting a reaction different from what was intended. People are reading a news report and getting riled up because they think the news outlet is trying to tell them something they don’t think is true.
The “media” reports that the provincial government wants everyone to have a card proving they have received a COVID-19 vaccine. Some – many? most? – members of the public perceive that as the Vancouver Sun (or whatever media outlet you want) says you should have a card proving you’ve received a COVID-10 vaccine. But it’s not the (name media outlet here) telling you that, they’re telling you what the province has mandated. But everyone perceives it as the media outlet and the reporter telling you what they want to happen. It’s the old shoot the messenger syndrome.
I think the essence of the problem is that people expect and/or believe that news reporting is advocating something. Or should be. But that’s not the case. In its purest form, news is just news – reporting something that happened or happens.
But people expect a story to be ‘doing something’ and, consequently, they think that every story is pushing for a certain outcome or point of view. As opposed to just telling you that someone is saying something, doing something or advocating something.
That’s the nub of the problem. When you read a news story it will say Premier John Horgan says, “Blah, blah, blah (not an actual quote).” We’re telling you what John Horgan (or anybody else) said.
But people perceive it as reporter Alistair Taylor says, “Blah, blah blah.” You need to read it more closely. Again, it’s not Reporter X saying something, she’s just quoting the subject who made that statement.
There is such a thing as advocacy journalism but that’s not what most reporters are producing plus advocacy journalism is biased, its advocating for a certain outcome or belief. In mainstream journalism, advocacy journalism falls under the umbrella of opinion and is usually dressed up as a column, an opinion piece that is the view of the writer. What you’re reading here is a column, an opinion piece and it’s labelled as such.
Now – and this is the exception that many people believe proves the rule – there are many instances of journalists deliberately and otherwise pushing an agenda or making a mistake but those should be clawed back as soon as it’s pointed out. And they usually do but there are occasions…
So, when a reporter writes that the Living Oceans Society wants fish farms out of the Broughton Archipelago, many people read that as the Campbell River Mirror wants fish farms out of the Broughton Archipelago. This is a crucial misunderstanding of journalistic process and the source of a lot of misunderstanding and strife.
We are the medium (get it, media?) through which the news reaches you. We didn’t say a northbound pick up truck swerved out of its lane, crossed the median and collided with a southbound semi truck. The police did. We tell you what the police tell us.
It’s hard for this to not sound patronizing but the level of misunderstanding is alarming and, sadly to us, baffling. I heard the phrase many years ago “People read what they want to read” and it’s true.
Another aspect of this is that if what we write doesn’t say what you want it to say, then it’s biased, incorrect and, God forbid, fake. Sorry people, but you’re going to read things that you don’t agree with. That doesn’t make them wrong.
In the end, we’re just presenting to you information – whether it be a quote or from some other source – that we’ve collected to confirm the point of the story you’re reading.
If it’s the writer’s opinion, we’ll tell you. Otherwise, look at the source and understand that it’s the source’s actions, opinions or wishes that’s being presented to you. In the best case, scenario, we’ll present the other side of the argument but that’s not always possible in the same piece (but it often is) but at some point the other side or sides of the argument will get put on the public agenda. And we’ll report that.
I’m such a cynic, of course, that even having explained this now, I don’t believe it will change anybody’s mind or lead anybody to any greater understanding of the mechanics of news reporting but I feel I have to try.
If you’re interested in responding to this commentary, feel free to email a reasoned, rational and respectfully-worded reply to email@example.com and I’ll run them in the Letters to the Editor online and in print.