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Reporting the News

by Roger Sarow

July 5,2006

It takes nerve to operate a service that ticks people off. Now and then I hear from a listener who is positively outraged about a story heard on WFAE, either a locally originated piece or a story produced by one of our networks, such as NPR.

Certainly there are instances when listeners are rightfully indignant at our content. Editors and reporters simply make mistakes. Beyond that, reporters can oversimplify a story. At other times radio professionals are guilty of haste in reporting, bias or paltry fact checking. All of those situations warrant a listener’s agitation.

I see an increasing incidence, however, of listeners who complain simply because they disagree with a story, and therefore feel empowered to demand that the story be yanked off the air (and the offending reporter yanked by the neck).

It reminds me of an NPR interview with a British journalist shortly before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The skeptical writer said, “You Yanks are not really interested in hearing facts these days; you’re interested in reassurance.”

Maybe this is a core failing of today’s customer-focused media: we start to assume that the basic content of the news we consume should be pleasant and reassuring, rather than upsetting or disquieting.

I see this as an interesting paradox in on-line news and commentary. When you can receive the news topics you desire – how you want it, when you want it – whose job is it to set your teeth on edge? Can a democracy move forward when citizens can pick and choose their individual realities?

Are traditional reporters simply watching out for their economic backsides when they advocate an editorial function in news gathering?

You won’t be shocked to hear that I support the role of public interest, non-commercial American media as a gap filler and conscience tweaker. Public radio stations all across the nation aggregate funds from their local markets in order to produce long-form national and world news. They do so at a time when most commercial television networks have drastically trimmed their international news staffing.

On the other hand, public stations are misinformed if they take a holier-than-thou posture toward their commercial news colleagues, or certainly if they look down their noses at their audiences. Many public stations are serving the public well by taking a longer view in their programming. They are concentrating on the long-term intellectual and civic well-being of their communities, even as their commercial media colleagues face relentless pressure from Wall Street to turn in a string of climbing quarterly profits.

A complaint often heard is that mainstream media outlets are liberal, and public broadcasters are especially flawed in this way. To paraphrase retired veteran NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, journalism does indeed do the following: talk about the disadvantaged in the society, investigate matters of social inequality, question authority and act as a skeptic toward our government. If those are “liberal” traits, then mainstream media are guilty as charged. On the other hand, somebody ought to do this work for the good of society, and who better but writers benefiting from the protections of the First Amendment.

Ted Koppel was recently interviewed in The Wall Street Journal about his decision to provide commentary and analysis for NPR programs. He said, “NPR’s leaders still believe it is the responsibility of the journalist to focus the attention of the listener on issues that are important. All too many media outlets right now think the correct way to lead is to take a poll, or study the demographics, and see what it is that the people who are most attractive to the advertisers want.”

Koppel is not the only broadcast journalist with a national following to join the NPR roster. Robert Krulwish – an NPR veteran – recently left his ABC News position to return to the NPR’s science beat. Editors and reporters from large daily metros have joined the NPR journalism team within the last two to three years. Cokie Roberts is credible and informative whether she’s wearing her ABC or NPR hat.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we, as listeners, support their work by welcoming the occasional, thoughtful challenge to our individual assumptions and value systems? Let’s call it “selective discomfort” and welcome it as the next wave of interactive media.

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