Being a critical reader has perhaps never been as important as it is today--in an age when any moron (I'm sorry, did I say moron?) with a PC can create a "news blog" and when the twenty-four hour news cycle is firing information at us from all sides nonstop (which is why they call it the twenty-four hour news cycle, I guess). As critical readers (people trying to discern things like what's worth reading and how a piece is meant to be read), one skill we may want to work on is that of identifying different types of journalism--knowing how to distinguish hard news, editorial journalism, infotainment, tabloid junk, and stylized literary journalism. Here are some things to keep in mind when trying to identify different types of journalism.
- Check the facts. A lot of partisan critics of all stripes these days derail different "hard news" channels, papers, and Internet sources for being "slanted," liberally or conservatively. How then, is one supposed to recognize real "hard news" or indisputable journalistic coverage? My suggestion is to look for facts instead of opinion. Look for facts, figures, and a focus on the classic who, what, where, when, why and how of an incident. Fact is the hallmark of hard news.
What if opinions are given in the course of a factual account? Say you're watching a BBC news item on Darfur and some relief worker gives an opinion on the cause of the genocide there. Then look how the opinion is integrated into the piece. Is it made clear that this is just one person's point of view? Is it mixed into the fuller context? Is a counterpoint offered? As long as the opinion is a part of the story as in "Here's what some people think...," then it can very well be hard news.
One example of hard news is PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The nightly segments cover world and national events using facts, extensive interviews with people from different sides of the issues, and no editorial commentary from Jim Lehrer or others on the staff after the report.
- Check your blood pressure. If you find yourself getting incensed by what you're reading or watching, or find yourself wanting to buy the commentator's latest book because he's just SO right, you're probably reading or watching editorial journalism. This is the kind of journalism where people talk about what they believe, what they think, and what they think they know. Facts are used selectively. The lines between "bad guys" and "good guys" are clearly drawn. And for a lot of the editorial journalists and their fans, sadly, truth is often defined as whatever is said the loudest.
Also unfortunately, we often confuse editorial journalism for hard news. We seek out people whose political opinions are similar to ours and take their interpretation of the facts, their commentaries, their list of rights and wrongs perpetrated during the day or the week, and we embrace them as objective reality. We do very little fact-checking on our own. We dismiss opposing opinions. And we don't tune into hard news (like NewsHour) because we're convinced the people there are "against us" because they may show us factual accounts of things we'd rather not have reported (for example, they make our guy look bad). Too many people have stopped caring about being informed and care only about being agreed with or pandered to.
Now if you're looking for an example of editorial journalism, just reread the above paragraph. It's my editorial commentary on the state of the American journalism consumer. No facts, just opinions.
- Check how much fun you're having. "Infotainment" is information merged with entertainment, and I believe that it has two branches. The first is the branch that operates under the guise of covering "hard news." This branch consists of the shoddy over-reporting of non-important events solely for the gratification of the consumers' sensationalist tastes and the ratings-greed of the news source.
An example of what we might call infotainment "branch one" would be the coverage of the Lacey Peterson case. This was a tragic event, but the reason it was covered to the degree it was--for almost a year--had nothing to do with its relative importance. Consumers wanted the dirt and the scandal, so the newscasters on Court TV, etc. kept on covering it with their serious, indignant countenances all severe and analytical. The line is blurred between news and movie-of-the-week.
The other kind of infotainment isn't as exploitative. It doesn't try to be anything other than it is. It's what you might call "fluff" journalism--unimportant, human interest type stories that include facts but are really just there for fun. Unfortunately, a lot of serious news outlets can bulk up with this sort of infotainment when we really need to know more about serious issues. For instance, we know more about recent celebrity births than we do about the huge global problems the celebrities are trying to call attention to, like the spread of HIV, poverty, malaria, or whatever it might be. We love infotainment. It's happy and it makes us happy. But it also keeps us from reality sometimes and surely exploits the people who it covers.
- Check if it could happen in reality. Infotainment should not be confused with tabloid journalism. Infotainment is the overexposure of the real, while tabloid journalism is, well, stuff like "Hitler's Nose found in Oprah's backyard" or "Dolly Parton makes deathbed confession to JFK assassination." You know this type of stuff. We read it for information, but not the kind we actually believe. It's sort of a joke, isn't it? Personally, I don't find it very entertaining.
- Check if it really happened, but sounds a lot cooler now. A growing subgenre of journalism is that of literary journalism, or literary non-fiction, wherein authors take their subject matter, research or experience them in depth, and then write about them in a very descriptive, engaging way. Or try to. It's sort of an answer to the dumbed-down news byte mixed with the desire to write in a less black-and-white journalistic manner. Many magazines today are comprised of literary nonfiction pieces. For example, some Sports Illustrated writers can turn a baseball game into an epic battle. Authors like Gay Talese and the late Hunter S. Thompson have works in this genre, too--telling real stories in a creative way instead of just "what happened when." You may consider the "Essay" segment on PBS' NewsHour to be literary journalism.
Whatever kind of journalism you read, listen to, or watch, take care to be objective and to recognize when the journalists aren't. There's more news than ever, and not all of it is worth considering.