Monday, November 14, 2016

Sharon Shahid: News ratings trumped credibility

  After one of the nastiest and most divisive presidential campaigns in recent memory, business tycoon Donald Trump is president-elect of the United States.

  It will probably take some time for the country to scrub out the mud that stained our democracy and gargle away the bad taste left in our collective mouths. But the country is still standing, and the ideals of the First Amendment remain firmly in place.

  As Gene Policinski, senior vice president of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, so eloquently put it: “The election once again showed the power of our core freedoms under the First Amendment: protecting our freedom to speak, write, assemble and seek change in the most powerful institutions of the nation.”

  That eloquence does not extend to the media’s election coverage, which Trump himself has falsely called “crooked.” Trust in the media has sunk so low that a biased, adversarial press is the perception for a majority of Americans. Trump, a creature of the media, promised retribution for perceived slights — a threat many of his supporters applauded. Some of them wore T-shirts that read: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.” There’s nothing subtle about that vile opinion. Ironically, the media’s colossal failure as the watchdogs of government was the rope that hung them and their credibility. It may take years for them to recover.

  The media see themselves as holders of a public trust, with certain responsibilities toward readers, viewers and their communities. Foremost among those is reporting the most significant issues of the day quickly, accurately and fairly. Most news organizations strive for fairness, balance and accuracy, and in general, that is the rule rather than the exception. But too often during the campaign, some reporters chased rumors, fake news and innuendo and passed them off as facts, instead of reporting stories of substance that could shed light on the issues.

  If there was a single quote that defined the bitter, circus-like race, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves provided one for the ages.

  Thrilled about all the advertising revenue the network raked in, Moonves declared: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. … The money’s rolling in, and this is fun. … Bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

  These days, legacy news organizations need all the help they can get to stay viable and alive. Print advertising is plunging, forcing some of the country’s biggest newspapers to consolidate properties and lay off staff. Television audiences have drifted to video subscription services and Facebook-provided newsfeeds, which have loosened the networks’ grip on information and entertainment.

  Now that Trump is headed to the White House, champagne corks must be popping in network and cable newsrooms across the country in anticipation of four years of nonstop revenue. Trump is the gift that keeps on giving, and Christmas is just around the corner.

  Journalism has traditionally been guided by what are called the “Five Ws and One H”: Who, what, when, where, why and how — questions basic to news reporting. It means following trails and connecting dots — old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting. Fortunately for the electorate, a few reporters lived up to the expectations of great journalism and produced scoops that defined the election cycle — Hillary Clinton’s private email server; Trump’s foundation, university, and charitable giving; Trump’s 1995 tax returns; Trump’s questionable dealings in Cuba; Trump’s sexual assault boasts.

  The big questions the rest of the media should ask themselves in the aftermath of the election are “Where do we go from here?” and “How do we make sure this failure never happens again?”

  About the author: Sharon Shahid is director of editorial content for video and interactive productions for the Newseum Institute.

  This article was published by the Newseum Institute.

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