Understanding, engaging with journalism vital to democracy

Successful democracy relies on educated voters, and the spread of information is vital to making that system work. Journalism and news media play huge roles in making democracy possible. However, problems arise when false information is spread – or when correct information is distrusted.

The public engages more with media during election seasons, and that’s not a coincidence. Everyday Americans need sources to learn more about the candidates, and candidates need the media to push their platforms and gain voters.  Journalism is meant to be a tool for people to have wider access to critical decision-making information, but lately the discourse has shifted to criticism for taking too active a role in the election.

This perceived influence has led to the discreditation of mainstream, particularly liberal-leaning, media. Additionally, however, we have seen a rise in the influence of fake news. Facebook, the largest social network in America, has been criticized for allowing fake news to spread on their platform.

When people searching for reliable information are faced with claims that mainstream media are wholly untrustworthy, they are liable to feel uncertain on how to proceed. Adding to this uncertainty is the fact that the media have been undergoing major structural changes for the past couple of decades.

It’s not just simple, old-school institutional print journalism anymore. With the new ventures of digital and broadcast journalism, the media are complicated by horizontally-integrated television networks tied up in business interests, opinion pieces confused for news articles or editorial stances when shared on social media, web platforms like Buzzfeed that host both fact-checked news as well as non-journalistic content and sponsored features,  and blogs or fake news sites that may appear reliable, but do not abide by any journalistic policies whatsoever. Even old-faithful newsprint has gotten into over-production of “click-bait” headlines to draw readers to the site.  

While this presents challenges to readers, media outlets, including The Miami Hurricane, try to make it accessible for readers to know what type of media they are consuming. Opinion and satire columns are clearly labelled as such. Sponsored articles are usually in different formats or labelled. Policy pages are readily available, and if they aren’t, it may indicate an unreliable source. Some prominent news outlets even have ombudsmen to address concerns and justify the publication’s decisions.

When readers take satire at face value and become outraged, criticize the newsworthiness of content without realizing the many different sections and focus areas of a publication, or criticize an article after only reading its headline on Facebook, it furthers dangerous, undue discreditation of the media and a stifling of real conversation about information. Readers have a responsibility to dig a little deeper when consuming (what they think is) news.

If readers have gone past the surface level to understand the source, read complete stories and still have concerns with the reporting or bias, then any and all criticism is welcome. Your criticisms help us get better at our job. Public scrutiny is the best checks and balances system for news institutions to ensure we keep serving our purpose in the democratic system.

While it is vital to scrutinize every source you read, it is also important to maintain some level of trust and understanding in journalistic law and honor. It is possible to acknowledge bias in the media, while still trusting its ability to serve its core purpose of making factual, reliable information accessible to readers.

Consider a leading story from Tuesday, President-elect Trump naming Steven Mnuchin Treasury Secretary. Conservative-leaning publication Wall Street Journal gave the headline, “Trump to Choose Ex-Banker for Treasury Secretary,” while more the liberal-leaning New York Times reported, “Trump Said to Pick Hollywood Financier to Lead Treasury.”

“Ex-Banker” has a more positive, qualified connotation, while “Hollywood Financier” may bring up associations of superficiality, insincerity, and lack of qualification. Of course media can be biased. Even headlines can reveal that bias. But those stories were also both reported completely fairly and accurately to the facts. 

Encouraging a generalized distrust in and anger toward the media is a specific tool used by dictators to gain power. When journalists are not trusted to do their jobs, it gives the powerful the ability to control the narrative with no one to fact-check them.

This industry, despite its flaws and changing nature, is still an undeniable asset to this country and to democracy. In fact, it is necessary to keep the system functioning and accountable. Don’t assume the problems are rampant and the news can just be ignored altogether. Read it, engage with it, scrutinize it. Ask questions – and not just rhetorical ones in the Facebook comments. Write the editor, the ombudsperson. Participate to make us better.

Editorials represent the majority view of The Miami Hurricane editorial board.