While American politics have long had a love-hate relationship with the media, we’ve recently entered a new era. On Feb. 24, the president of the United States declared war on the media, saying that “the fake news is the enemy of the people” and stating that they “do not tell the truth” and shouldn’t be allowed to use anonymous sources.
Later, during a CPAC speech, President Trump declared that media reporting on his statements had willfully taken them out of context and that he didn’t mean that all media was the enemy, just the fake news.
No matter what the president meant, the damage had been done. He had tapped into America’s long frustration with the media and perceived media bias and given the entire society permission to fight back against this so-called enemy.
Even so, while we may be frustrated with the way mainstream media covers the news or tired of media commentators rather than reporters, the media still matters.
Before we proceed any further, let me state a couple of facts. First, I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from a journalism school that is often ranked as one of the best. Throughout my education, journalistic integrity and a devotion to truth-telling was taught, practiced and demanded from us. You may discount my view of what the media should be as idealistic, but I know what journalism can accomplish when practiced at the highest level and still believe it is a vital part of our society.
Second, I am not blind to issues that threaten the integrity of today’s mainstream media. TV news stations I once enjoyed and regarded as some of the best truth-tellers in our world now seem more like a million talking heads shouting their opinions—conservative and liberal alike—at the same time. I am not naive to media bias; I do think it is a problem journalism is currently facing and will have to answer for. I also know that in a culture that doesn’t want to pay for quality news or reporting and instead demands it for free, it becomes easier for media outlets to be swayed by those who pay the bills (the advertisers).
Recently, the media has often been too quick to publish reports based on unverified information (social media posts included), which has further eroded the public’s trust in the institution.
But I still maintain that the media—journalism—matters.
The news media is sometimes called “the fourth estate.” It’s a grand title, and one that can be a little confusing if you don’t know what it refers to. In the U.S., our government is set up so that no one branch holds all of the power. We all learned about checks and balances back in those civics and government classes in junior high, right? As “the fourth estate,” the news media has often operated as the unofficial fourth branch, the watchdog of the people to keep our political system in line.
You may disagree. You may think the media has abdicated its duty to the people by an obvious tendency toward bias. And for some outlets, I think that is absolutely true. But good journalism—the kind that seeks to tell the truth, bring darkness to light and inform about both sides of an issue—is still vitally important for a society that is starved for truth and transparency. We need those kinds of reporters—and they still exist—because we live in a world where truth is considered relative and “spin” is now the rule rather than the exception.
The media has a vital role to play, both in our political system and in our own lives. At its best, the media can work to keep politically powerful people and parties in check and provide fair and balanced reports about the issues our society faces. At its worst, it can become a tool of the loudest voice, deepest pockets or those who seem to hold the most power.
But for the media to operate at its best, we must allow its practitioners to be free to do their work. Decrying viewpoints we don’t agree with as fake news only makes reporting the news more difficult for journalists who are trying to do so with integrity. Casting an entire profession as liars and enemies makes the already difficult job of truth-telling and bringing darkness to light even more burdensome. All of this combines to create a deep mistrust that those who are truly seeking to do the job of the fourth estate will find difficult to overcome, if not impossible.
There are so many voices in our world today. Biased reporting, biased news agencies and legitimately fake or fabricated news do exist; there’s no denying that. But truth-tellers still exist, too. So seek them out. If you think a reporter, news source or station is biased, stop reading or watching it. If your only news source is your social media feed, seek out a reputable news outlet, whether online or in print, and read it regularly. Be willing to pay for quality reporting, whether that’s a print or online subscription or something else. Hold reporters and news outlets to the highest standard and press them to report the news, not opinions.
The media truly matters. And rather than attacking the institution and its practitioners, we should challenge them to live up to the standard to which they are called.
The “wise shall be the bearers of light” reads the archway that leads to the journalism buildings at my alma mater. It’s meant as a challenge to fledgling journalists, but it’s also a clarion call to practitioners today. Call for journalists to be fair, to tell the truth, to be the bearers of light in a dark world—but don’t call them the enemy.