Media Literacy: How Reporters and News Consumers can Step Up their Game

Journalism is in the midst of a slow-motion crisis.

When I was in journalism school, students learned how to write using the “inverted pyramid” approach. The inverted pyramid is a style of writing that dates back to the days when paper real estate — in a print newspaper — was limited. Editors who wished to make room for breaking stories needed the option to lop the bottom of the story off with minimal risk of omitting critical details. The inverted pyramid calls for the most vital aspects of a story to appear at the top. This allows editors more flexibility while recognizing the fact that not all readers make the page jump to continue reading an article that concludes elsewhere. As a result, it was important then — as it is now — to lead with the most relevant details. A properly crafted story lede (introduction) encapsulates the basics: Who?, What?, When?, Where? and Why?.

In the Digital Era print real estate isn’t the limiting factor it once was. But there are indications the digital medium has shortened readers’ attention spans. It is of vital importance, as a result, to impart key facts “up top” — if only because web viewers are likely to skim content and move on.

Something, however, has changed in the way a lot of news organizations craft and promote stories. Call it sloppiness — lax editing — or journalistic “spin”. Some of the most controversial stories to appear in mainstream media are prefaced by misleading headlines on social media — titles that don’t square with a complete read of the content. Misleading headlines on social media posts are far from the only problem, however. Take, as an example, two contradictory narratives: Person/institution “X” and person/institution “Y” disagree over who did what or why. What should a responsible journalist do with this unwieldy story line? The answer is to disclose the ambiguity very early on  — to make clear to readers that a situation is in flux and/or that key aspects of the story are in dispute.

Why should journalistic tradecraft concern news consumers? Because, in part, mainstream media news reports “stack” the facts of a story in a linear fashion. This serves to emphasizes certain aspects of the story at the expense of others. Absent the inverted pyramid stylistic guidelines of old, readers must go to greater lengths to appreciate — as far down as the bottom ~1/3 of a story — that what is put forth in the first ~2/3 may not be as uncontroverted as the lede implies.

If that were the extent of the problem, it would be manageable: simply make the effort to read or otherwise “hear out” such content from start to finish. There are, however, other issues — ranging from omissions to “rhetoric creep” in which hard news stories slip into label-driven shorthand. Buzzwords that appeared infrequently in mainline reporting not so long ago — labels such as “populist” and “xenophobe” — are increasingly banded about as if to imply that it is possible to derive from the known facts of a story the personal motives of individuals and public figures to whom such labels are attached. Yet another common tactic of rhetoric-tainted news coverage is to imply that that contrary views amount to little more than propaganda.

While pressure to keep up with the fast pace of social media and a 24/7 new cycle undoubtedly plays a role in the proliferation of low-quality journalism, the alarming aspect of this “stack the facts” trend is that it gives the appearance of a biased agenda on the part of mainstream media. When all other factors are equal — but for which key aspects of who, what, when or why remain unconfirmed — news organizations, producers and editors have a responsibility to ensure that content does not paint an ambiguous development in unambiguous and/or moralistic terms.

Much of today’s news — particularly the political variety — hinges on anonymous leaks and hearsay (he said, she said, they said). When journalists present stories that lead with details that oversell a particular conclusion — relegating caveats and contradictions to the end of a story or broadcast — they create the impression that more investigation and/or corroboration exists than the evidence actually supports [example].

An erosion of public trust in mainstream media may help explain the rising popularity of alternative news. Fake news was a problem during the 2016 election and it will continue to challenge the endless social media grapevine. What is not yet widely acknowledged — and overdue for journalistic reckoning — is the reality that “false messaging“, as it is also known, isn’t just a product of off-the-beaten path information sources. Increasingly, mainstream media have blurred the line between journalistic traditions of old and the temptation to engage in social media clickbait — promoting stories that play up sensationalized angles and do little to differentiate between hearsay, fact and innuendo.

Journalists, editors and producers must be wary of losing public confidence. While pitching stories of a particular partisan persuasion may appeal to select readers and audiences, journalistic integrity, overall, suffers for the trend within journalism to abandon all pretense of journalistic objectivity.

One look at the public comments news stories illicit on Twitter and Facebook is all it takes to appreciate how cynical the public has become toward mainstream media. The only way to invest in the future of journalism is to return to “impossible” journalistic standards — the high ideal of unbiased reporting.

Journalists who stack the facts — elevating some details while de-emphasizing others — do a disservice to the public and the profession. One way news consumers can hold journalism professionals to a higher standard is to understand how news stories ought to be presented in the first place. It was a lot easier to “consume” news when reporters and editors adhered to the inverted pyramid. Now that reporters and editors have adopted a more blog-inspired stylistic approach, readers must perform their own due diligence to become properly informed. An ever-present awareness that reserving judgment is a necessary evil in the social media era is one way to avoid falling victim to fake news. Stepping out of self-imposed silos, finally, must become a conscious choice of news consumers and news professionals alike.

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