A nose for news (and opin­ion)

The Covington News - - Front page -

We are flooded with news and what-ap­pears-to-be news on a non-stop ba­sis. The news con­sumer can spend hours a day be­tween news­pa­pers, TV, ra­dio and on­line, view­ing mul­ti­ple web­sites that in­clude wanna-be-news sites called blogs, or more ac­cu­rately, opin­ion.

Wha t is news? There are two types of news: needt o - k n ow and wantt o - k n ow. Need-to­know news in­cludes govern­ment bud­gets, health risks, en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ters, wars, auto re­calls, etc. Want-to-know news in­cludes Tiger Woods’ dal­liances, who re­places Simon Cowell on Amer­i­can Idol, Greg All­man get­ting a liver trans­plant, etc. News is also fear-based: crime, ris­ing taxes, lay­offs, banks in dis­tress, etc. Un­der crime, some news out­lets... one At­lanta TV sta­tion in par­tic­u­lar…dwell on crime that has a small rip­ple ef­fect. A do­mes­tic ar­gu­ment that re­sults in a shoot­ing af­fects the im­me­di­ate fam­i­lies and is not rel­e­vant to most news con­sumers. On the other hand, a shoot­ing on a school bus raises com­mu­nity con­cerns as to the safety of our school kids.

Cru­cial for the news con­sumer is the abil­ity to dis­tin­guish be­tween fact and opin­ion. When an elected of­fi­cial makes a state­ment, it may be dif­fi­cult to know whether it is fact or opin­ion, es­pe­cially if par­ti­san­ship (po­lit­i­cal party af­fil­i­a­tion) is a fac­tor in the is­sue at hand. This can be tricky. But the red flag should go up when watch­ing TV news and the an­chor asks the live re­porter what he or she “thinks” or “what’s the mood?” The re­porter’s func­tion is to present the rel­e­vant facts. Pro­duc­ers need­ing to fill time will for­mat Q&A be­tween an­chor and re­porter. As soon as the re­porter tells us what he/ she “thinks,” we’re out of the news busi­ness and into opin­ions. Ask­ing the re­porter about the mood of the crowd is like ask­ing three peo­ple to de­fine a mir­a­cle. Each will be dif­fer­ent. The mood of the soc­cer crowd might be in­ter­preted by one re­porter as “bois­ter­ous” but by an­other as “an­gry” and a third “in­tox­i­cated.” Who is right?

An­other way in which a re­porter’s opin­ion comes into play is in the use of ad­jec­tives. Lis­ten care­fully to what is said. “The po­lice chief’s stern warn­ing…” By whose def­i­ni­tion was it stern? “The pres­i­dent’s thor­ough plan…” Says who? You’ve heard these. I have cas­ti­gated re­porters for us­ing these terms. If there is a de­scrip­tive term it needs to be at­trib­uted. “The po­lice chief said his stern warn­ing should do the job.” “Aides de­scribed the presi- dent’s plan as thor­ough.”

If a source is not iden­ti­fied by name, he/she should be char­ac­ter­ized. For in­stance, “some­one close to the union ne­go­ti­a­tions…” Was this “some­one” a mem­ber of the union or the com­pany? That will color their in­for­ma­tion. If it’s a po­lit­i­cal is­sue, from what party is the uniden­ti­fied source. Of course, if the per­son quoted or whose sound-bite is used clearly iden­ti­fies who is speak­ing, take into con­sid­er­a­tion whom they rep­re­sent and if their dog is in the hunt.

There was an NBC poll on the air Thurs­day. The last num­ber quoted was Pres­i­dent Obama’s job per­for­mance ap­proval rat­ing — 45 per­cent ap­proved, 48 per­cent dis­ap­proved. In lit­tle tiny letters at the bot­tom of the graphic was “Mar­gin of er­ror 3.3.” That means it could be 48 per­cent ap­prove and 45 per­cent dis­ap­prove. What Brian Wil­liams (or his writer) should have said is, “It’s a tie when you con­sider the mar­gin of er­ror of the poll.” But how of­ten in the poll-driven me­dia are you made aware of the mar­gin of er­ror? Es­pe­cially around elec­tion time? The larger the mar­gin of er­ror, the smaller the sam­pling. Three-point-three is a fairly large mar­gin of er­ror.

And fi­nally, the talk shows. If you are watch­ing Bill O’Reilly or Larry King or Rachel Mad­dow or Glen Beck or Chris Mathews or Greta Van Sus­teren, you are watch­ing opin­ion, not news. If you are watch­ing the ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN or FOX Sun­day morn­ing talk shows, they are a mix of fact and opin­ion, but they are not news pro­grams. What is said may have some news value, but these are not news shows.

This col­umn you are read­ing is opin­ion. It may be new(s) to you but it is opin­ion. Ev­ery­thing on this page is opin­ion, whether it’s a col­umn, an ed­i­to­rial or a let­ter to the edi­tor. The news is else­where on these pages.

A pet peeve of mine: CBS’s Laura Lo­gan re­port­ing on Afghanistan from Washington. NBC’s An­drea Mitchell is the Se­nior Po­lit­i­cal Re­porter on MSNBC dur­ing the day. At night she is the chief for­eign cor­re­spon­dent on NBC Nightly News re­port­ing on Iraq from Washington. I don’t mean to be pick­ing on NBC, but its Chief White House cor­re­spon­dent, Chuck Todd, is also Po­lit­i­cal Di­rec­tor. Does that mean that vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing com­ing out of the White House is po­lit­i­cal? (Some of you are prob­a­bly shak­ing your heads in agree­ment.) This is just flat wrong.

Dis­cern­ing news con­sumers make for a smarter cit­i­zenry. A smart cit­i­zenry makes for a bet­ter com­mu­nity and coun­try.

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