What is news?
It’s not up to us to resist the rapid evolution of news, rather we must learn to learn to cope with it. Information is no longer as straightforward as it once may have seemed; even the definition of “news” is a bit fuzzy depending on who you talk to.
The relationship between Americans and their news is distinctly American, and reflective of larger cultural shifts in the country right now. America is panicking about the idea of news because, more fundamentally, Americans are facing increasingly blurry lines between truth, fact, and opinion. How do we tell what is accurate, what is correct? How do we agree on what “news” is and which news sources are good? I don’t think this question is answerable, but I’d like to wade into the water a bit.
One problem lies with the definition of news, which is shifting. There is disagreement about where opinion, fact, entertainment, and truth intersect, and what subsection of that intersection is important or newsworthy. Fortunately, we live in a free market capitalism where there are plenty of news sources with different ideas about all of this, so we have the opportunity to be exposed to a wide range of information that may align ideologically with where we think the intersection of opinion, fact, entertainment, truth, and newsworthiness should be!
Unfortunately, we live in a free market capitalism where anyone can publish any information and make any claims about it. This is the free market in action: the bad news sources should naturally float to the bottom of the barrel and be ignored. But this isn’t necessarily happening. Instead, these things are staying moderately afloat. Small but loud ideological bubbles can be formed that shut out challenging ideas. Taken to the extreme, this looks like propaganda, which has been talked about frequently under the pseudonym of “fake news” over the past year or so, especially with regards to American politics.
The intertwining of opinion and journalism is past us. It has already happened as part of the evolution of journalism and it’s past time to fight it. It cannot be fought, or reversed, only coped with. Journalism can move forward, but not backward.
Opinion journalism has the valuable potential to enlighten, and it has the equally destructive potential to close off the mind. The problem is not with the opinionizing of fact, or what we may call analysis, commentary, or editorializing. Adding opinion and analysis to factually accurate news reports helps people understand the news, helps with context, subtext, and interpretation. The problem lies with the factualization of opinion, wherein the analysis becomes the hero of its own story and the facts, i.e., the information being reported, takes a back seat or even gets misrepresented by selectively picking out bits of information that support the opinion. This is a problem because this is propaganda.
The whole idea of fake news — a politically correct term for propaganda—is that there is a propagation of wildly misrepresented facts or even blatant lies in order to further a particular agenda (which, one last time, is the actual definition of propaganda). The problem with the term “fake news” is that it has become politicized, precisely because of the ambiguity of the phrase. The word “propaganda” is sufficient to describe the phenomenon. Propaganda is not a new threat to journalism, and people taking propaganda seriously is also nothing new—the point of propaganda is to convince people to take it seriously. But it’s very difficult—perhaps increasingly so—to distinguish between propaganda and actual reporting, between opinion and fact. Our own president even struggles with it.
Opinion is not fact, hands down. That’s not my opinion, that is a definitional fact. But opinion has an important role to play in the reporting of fact. In facts lie the seeds of truth, and it’s the job of opinion to grow those seeds into sprouts (the accurate data) and eliminate the weeds (the inaccurate, disproved, or misunderstood data).
Back to the original question: what is news, what is not?
News is, at its core, a statement of facts and updates about things that have happened, are happening, or are expected to happen. The determination of how much opinion should be in journalism is a constant dialogue between journalists and readers. In my opinion, it’s important for that dialogue to be significantly more vocal.
Let’s end with an example that lies in the grey area between opinion journalism and propaganda: the reporting of opinions, aka, the “he said, she said” of journalism. Increased access to politicians through social media and the advent of the 24-hour cycle have given rise to an outpouring of reporting on their opinions of other politicians. Let’s look at an example of the dangers of this type of reporting, as seen on the homepage of The Huffington Post this afternoon, retrieved at 2:22pm EST.
It’s easy to argue here that Huffington Post is not necessarily posting editorial pieces, they are just reporting on the opinions of people whose opinions matter (Former CIA Deputy Director, Nancy Pelosi, Keith Olbermann, Trevor Noah, a WaPo Correspondent). Sure, their opinions matter, however HuffPo makes a pretty unforgivable error here by omitting voices of opposition to one another. By reporting solely on those opinions that fit a particular narrative (in this case, Democratic), HuffPo is expressing an opinion, which is bad journalism and, effectively, propaganda. There is no ideologically challenging material here at all, no subtlety, no self-critical nuance, to say nothing of the other offensive things going on. In the interest of fairness, watching Fox News Network will almost always provide a similar level of quality in content from a more conservative perspective. Any good reporting done by these organizations is overshadowed by the egregiousness of their editorializing.
It’s a fine line to walk. I don’t think it’s possible to conclusively agree on what news is, or what facts are, because that delves into the nature of Truth and other heady philosophical things best reserved for people smarter than I to ponder. However, it’s easier to talk about what news isn’t. It’s not opinions, it’s not propaganda, and it’s not something we as a collective can afford to disengage from.