When Reporting the News, Keep it Real by Sylvia Riojas Vaughan
News. Fiction. Satire.
One may satirize news. One may write novels, screenplays, short stories, plays, etc., based on news. And one may express opinions in editorials and columns regarding news.
But when writing news, bias, imagination, taking things out of context, falsehoods, fiction, satire, opinion, hyperbole, fantasies, desires, wishful thinking, etc., have no place in reporting real life. As TV detective Joe Friday would say, “Just the facts.”
Professional journalists are dedicated to informing the public — being present at events themselves, through reliable sources, through public documents. Integrity is essential to maintaining the public’s trust, because in a republican form of government, well-informed voters are crucial to the outcome of national elections on down to local elections for street improvements. Betrayal of that trust is unthinkable, leading to scandal, firings, and a pall upon every journalist’s reputation:
Brian Williams, former anchor of NBC Nightly News, lied about his helicopter being shot and forced down in Iraq.
Dan Rather, former CBS news anchor, reported schoolchildren in Dallas clapped and cheered when President Kennedy was assassinated; he neglected to mention the children were not informed of the president’s death, only that early dismissal from school was announced.
In 2010, weather forecaster Heidi Jones, of WABC/Channel 7, fabricated a story that she had nearly been raped while jogging in New York City. She was suspended.
I think Mr. Williams’s tale might have been better as a screenplay. Perhaps Mr. Rather should’ve been a satirist. I think Ms. Jones needs professional help, not a job in which the public trusts her to forecast a blizzard.
So how does a reporter write news, in the most unbiased, credible way possible? The answer is addressing the 5 Ws and the H: Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why. To avoid bias, a reporter should get quotes from as many people as possible. If a zoning change would put a factory next to a park, for example, the reporter should get comments from city officials, factory owners, activists, and neighbors, and in no way slant the story toward any party. Use of some adjectives and adverbs could create bias. The reader will do research if desired, and make up his/her own mind whether the factory’s proposed location is a good idea.
Facts aren’t omitted, except, say, in coverage of ongoing police investigations.
Other types of coverage are:
editorials, in which the editors entreat readers to see things their way
news analysis, which allows for more speculation
depth reporting, usually a series of stories on a topic
columns, in which the reporter may satirize or give advice or wax philosophical
news feature stories, not necessarily topical but fun or unusual
photojournalism, important in spot news or human interest stories. (Spot/hard news stories are immediate in nature, usually unexpected, including natural disasters, fatal accidents, hostage situations, etc.)
Biased/false reporting fails to serve the public. Many journalists work long hours for little pay. Sure, they like bylines. Every organization wants the scoop, but accuracy, objectivity, and truth are foremost.