Words have consequences, and how we say something is often more important than what we say. Phrasing and word choices can color stories for readers. Sometimes this happens because of workload and deadline crush. Other times, it is intentional and meant to influence an audience.
News stories have come full circle, it seems. If we were to go back to the infancy of the business, we would see the confluence of opinion and fact in reporting. As the craft has evolved, word precision became more important and, for the most part, a hard line was drawn between “news” stories and “opinion” pieces. Certainly, that's been the case in the West Texas newsrooms where I work.
For example, in this newspaper, the opinion page is clearly labeled, and commentaries such as columns are presented differently from news stories. Back in the day, reporters were often reminded to avoid “loaded” words, adjectives that might improperly color an otherwise properly neutral story. Fortunately, there was some latitude on this in sports coverage, which is a much different world from the courthouse beat (most of the time anyway). Regardless, with clear boundaries, discriminating news consumers should be able to tell the difference.
In a perfect world, this would still be a widespread practice today, but through the rise and popularity of formats and platforms that have accentuated opinion and confrontation over fact and objectivity, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish truly objective and dispassionate story-telling these days. For example, here is the first several paragraph of two stories about the same topic: the recent death of H. Ross Perot.
Here is how his hometown newspaper, The Dallas Morning News, reported it:"Ross Perot, self-made billionaire, renowned patriot and two-time independent candidate for U.S. president, has died after a five-month battle with leukemia. He was 89."
And here is how the Washington Post reported it: "H. Ross Perot, an eccentric Dallas billionaire whose two independent runs for president in the 1990s tapped into voters’ frustration with the major political parties and foreshadowed the rise of the tea party two decades later, died July 9 at his home in Dallas. He was 89."
Neither is necessarily wrong, but what is the takeaway from someone who glances at the first part of each account? Self-made man or Texas eccentric? Perhaps there is always a little danger in letting someone else articulate the narrative of our lives.
I’m partial to the Morning News version. It’s more straightforward and includes a cause of death without being overly political. Of course, as the hometown paper of the nation’s capital, the Post likely views many stories through a politicized lens. That is not intended as criticism, only as part of the reality the media faces in these days of intensifying opposition, scrutiny and suspicion.
In the newsrooms I have been and am a part of, reporters treat their craft responsibly. There are no secret agendas or media-led conspiracies to overturn or overthrow the status quo. Several reporters in Lubbock were raised in the community and consider it a privilege to chronicle the day-to-day happenings of their hometown.
Do we make mistakes? Of course, but they are not intentional or from a lack of caring. We want to get things right and deliver a daily objective report to our audience. Is that true of the broad spectrum of the national media? I’m not so naïve as to think so. A trip through the cable news offerings often has me scratching my head at how one story is told in such differing ways. Of course, these days even uttering the words “fair and balanced” can provoke anything from a smirk to the knowing smile of someone on the inside.
I was surprised this past week to see the city of El Paso described as “remote” in a news service story. I was equally surprised that someone thinks our publications are “pushing” climate change. It irritates me every time a visiting writer uses the adjective “wind-swept” when describing almost any corner of West Texas (read: east of I-35).
Terms like “framing” the news and “spinning” the story should have no place in newsrooms today. It is not the job of hard-working journalists to decide whether something is good or ill, positive or negative. It is merely their job to gather facts and construct a readable account. The audience gets to decide.
There should never be a whiff of reporter opinion apparent in a news story. It’s why the verb of attribution for quotations is always “said.” It’s odorless, tasteless and colorless. When it’s something other than said, that’s when readers pause and wonder.
The opinion pages and columns? That’s another matter, and it should be labeled or presented as such. Unfortunately, one of the (many) criticisms of the media today is reporter opinions are creeping into what are supposed to be objective accounts. People find this confusing and frustrating. They want news the way people in Kentucky prefer their whiskey: neat and straight.
We in the media do ourselves no favors with self-inflicted wounds of trying to disguise opinion as objective reporting. Today’s sophisticated readers with a never-ending menu of news options won’t be fooled, and the media should never be in the business of trying to fool anyone.
Doug Hensley is the associate regional editor and director of commentary for the Globe-News.