In our November 13th interview with entrepreneur Richard K. Rein, founder of the long-lived New Jersey regional newspaper U. S. 1, we were given an in-depth look at what it took to start a newspaper from scratch and what it takes to maintain it.
All journalists have been tarred now as creators of “fake news.” Partisanship has rendered meaningful discourse nearly impossible by creating iron curtains between people. In this second part of our discussion, Rein talks about how the current divide affects his enterprise specifically and his profession in general.
Steve Mariotti: Partisanship is rife in all aspects of social interaction now, from Facebook to the local coffee shop. How does it manifest itself in your world of community news?
Richard K. Rein: Like everyone else journalists want to be liked in their own community. No one wants to be the skunk at the garden party. Community journalists can easily fall into the trap of favoring the status quo and giving short shrift to those perceived as “troublemakers” in their community.
SM: During the course of your 40+ years as a journalist, how have you seen partisanship develop? Has it been a slow march toward the current state, erratic bursts of sentiment, or something else entirely?
RKR: I think sides are being taken much more quickly today than they used to be -- the change roughly corresponding to the speed with which we can transmit news. I'm amazed how many journalists tweet an immediate reaction to some breaking news story. Frankly I don't see much value in that. Usually it just adds to the media clutter.
SM: A Gallup poll taken in the fall of 2016 revealed that only 32 percent of the American public trust the mass media. That’s the lowest level of trust recorded in Gallup’s polling history. To what do you attribute this surprising response?
RKR: Part of it is that the mass media is no longer so massive. Thanks to the Internet more people have more choices of news sources than ever before. And increasingly people are gravitating to those sources that reinforce their own thinking. Then that sliver of the media becomes trusted and the rest is considered untrustworthy.
Reporters put themselves in the middle of the fray, when they appear on television, radio, and internet talk shows commenting on news stories. They may be carefully weighing their words as any responsible, non-partisan journalist would, but it may not appear that way to the viewer, who often sees them as just another advocate for a particular point of view.
SM: You have defined some pretty harsh reality checks for writers/journalists who struggle with maintaining a “fair and balanced” perspective. Could you elaborate on them?
RKR: First off label your work -- if it's an opinion piece or news analysis let readers and viewers know that it is. If your publication offers advertisers "special advertising features" make sure they are labeled as such and are readily differentiated from regular news stories. Admit any conflicts of interest, or -- and this important -- any appearances of conflict.
Next, be open about your own views -- if the subject comes up don't try to fool your readers or viewers by telling them you have no opinions. The fact is that most reporters do have opinions and they should be subject to change as new facts are discovered.
Make an effort to understand other points of view. Many years ago, a friend of mine was editing a conservative magazine in a very liberal town. His work was often rejected by the establishment and the mainstream media as being inaccurate. He would say, "but even a stopped clock is right twice a day." And he had a point.
Third, accept criticism. One thing I've noticed over the years is that journalists tend to have thin skin. We can quickly criticize elected officials or we can pan a theater production, but we usually don't take kindly to anyone who gives us a bad review. Letters that criticize a reporter's story often have a rebuttal from the reporter or her editor tacked on at the end. It discourages other potential letter writers.
The media should seek out letters and op ed pieces, especially from people whose views may not be shared by the majority in the community. A good editor might even help the letter writer formulate his thoughts.
SM: Isn't the object of good journalism to be objective?
RKR: That's an easy way to look at it, but the more complicated answer is that even the most objectively reported stories, where all sides are given equal standing, have been assigned as a result of some subjective judgment. For example, an editor decides to run a story about the melting of the polar ice cap or, in the case of U.S.1 which covers community businesses, I may think there is a story in activity on a tract of vacant land. The point is that the very choice of what to cover inherently has a subjective component. Content is governed to some extent by space and the choice of what to cover and what not to cover is a balancing act. There is no absolutely objective criteria of what gets reported or when.
SM: How do you respond to the charge that the mainstream media is overwhelmingly liberal?
RKR: My immediate response is to admit that it often is, though not always. Reporters naturally get caught up in the community they cover. If you live in a small town and report on that town, you usually want that town to thrive. If you are a sportswriter covering the hometown team, it's easy to root for that team to do well -- one reason for that is a team that does well will get into the post-season playoffs and your work will be read by more people.
But that doesn't mean that reporters should whitewash their reports of their home towns or home teams. Good reporters can be very tough on the people they cover.
National politics is an interesting case. One recent study showed that 72 percent of all print and internet reporters are based in counties won by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. They tend to be liberals rather than conservatives. In addition, liberals tend to be interested in the nuances of government, and political coverage tends to be nuanced. But the political reporter shouldn't ignore "the other side" any more than a sportswriter should fail to report a good story about the visiting team. You just can't be partisan.
SM: What's the difference between subjective and partisan?
RKR: Subjective decisions ought to be based on careful weighing of all available facts. Partisan decisions can be predicted in advance and are the result of uncritical thought. There really are “knee-jerk liberals.”
SM: To what extent has the media created its own crisis of faith? In other words, in its quest for market share, did it become a race to the bottom with too much emphasis on the quick and the sensational?
RKR: Television news programs have certainly been guilty of that. The old expression reflects some reality: "If it bleeds, it leads." For example, some of us wonder if the weather reporters tend to over-dramatize impending storms in order to hype ratings. That's not a light criticism because the public's understanding of how severe a storm could be is crucial in determining whether or not it heeds evacuations orders.
Now print newspapers are getting into that, as well, as some reporters and photographers are being paid by the click for material of theirs posted to the Internet. A reporter who might otherwise dig into a complicated zoning issue or traffic study might choose instead to write a quick survey story on "the 10 best bars in town," or some similar piece of "click bait." I was told last summer that photographers flocked to cover -- and post online photo galleries of -- a lifeguard bikini contest at the Jersey shore. No surprise.
SM: Writers need readers. What can journalists, local and national, do to encourage readers to move beyond the headline and a knee-jerk reaction to those few words?
RKR: Writers and their editors need to humanize their subjects. Tell that complicated and possibly boring zoning story from the point of view of a homeowner who could be adversely affected by it. Be an empathic editor -- put yourself in your reader's shoes and make sure that the information is presented in a way that will be readily understandable.
Don't be afraid to reveal your own emotions when it's appropriate. Being fair and non-partisan doesn't mean that you have to be soulless. Tell a story, don't just assemble a list of facts. You don't want to become another Wikipedia.
Additional research and editing by E.E. Whiting.