I was catching up with an old friend over the phone when I heard his tone change as he started talking about “the media.”
I bristle any time I hear “the media,” usually pronounced with a deeper voice and a healthy heaping of sarcasm. I immediately asked him to define his term: Was it newspapers, television news, cable talk shows or online-only?
He pushed right through it, ignoring the clarification I needed, since different forms of media tend to act in different ways. I’m obviously partial to the way newspapers and their online counterparts act, given the fact I’ve spent nearly a quarter-century doing it. To me, calling all of them “the media” is like expecting the same thing from a sandwich bought at a convenience store, a fast-food drive-thru and a fancy restaurant. But I digress.
My friend was genuinely angry about the way opinions and biases keep slipping out in the news coverage he’s consuming. He said he sees it in Fox News and MSNBC both, namely when the talking heads conduct yell-offs with guests. What really got him riled up was something he saw on a newspaper’s Facebook page.
When he got through what he had to say, I finally asked the question I needed to understand most. What kind of story was it? He didn’t exactly know what it was. After looking while he talked, I realized he was reading an editorial.
I explained to him that an editorial wasn’t a fact-based news story. It was an informed opinion by a group of people at a newspaper called the editorial board. In Lima’s case, I’m one of three members of ours, along with publisher Kirk Dougal and editor Jim Krumel. After accepting that answer, he told me those opinions had to affect the way the newspaper covered its news.
I know it’s a popular belief that newspapers are all in a conspiracy to push one side of a narrative or the other, but I assure you we’re not organized enough to pull off a conspiracy like that. Our news side is sprinting from assignment to assignment, checking out rumors people have sent out over social media (most of which turn out to be misunderstandings or outright lies). Our opinions, which aren’t written by news reporters but by editors, look to encourage discussion and occasionally rile you into taking action.
It does show a communication gap between news-gathering organizations and their consumers, though. So much of a newspaper’s information has been bent and shaped to fit into an increasingly online world, and there’s context lost. If you read my column regularly in print, you probably know it appears on the “People & More” page in the newspaper. If you read it online, you can’t tell from looking at it what kinds of content fit around it.
The same is true for our newspaper’s editorials. In print, the top of the page is pretty clearly labeled “Opinions,” and those editorials from our staff and others across the country are next to editorial cartoons, columns with people’s opinions and letters to the editor, most of which don’t agree with one another on much. On Facebook, Twitter or LimaOhio.com, though, you can lose sight of that context if you’re not familiar with the cues we give, such as putting newspaper names or the word “editorial” in a headline, even if there’s a little black word below the headline identifying which sections where something appears.
Columns, which are the opinions of individuals, have the name of that person right in the headline, along with a photo of that person usually looking smug or serious. In my photo, I’m going for smugly serious.
With a national election on the horizon, you’re going to see a lot of gray area between news and opinions when you’re looking online.
I urge people to spend a little time becoming a savvy user of media. There are a lot of resources online to help people understand what makes media nonpartisan and reputable. Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication recently created a free, six-hour class, “Mediactive: How to Participate in Our Digital World,” which might be worth checking out at j.mp/2DQGzrx.
Our democracy is only strong when there’s an informed electorate. I hope you’re doing your part to make sure you’re being informed and not influenced.