On Making the News

Yesterday I discussed media with the students participating in the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Program. This is a group of very smart and articulate kids; the idea is to gather together nearly 200 students from across Colorado for a weekend of talks and leadership activities.

I must say I found this group to be a tough and even slightly intimidating audience. I was a fill-in speaker (as somebody else had to cancel), so I signed up only late Wednesday night. I had a busy schedule the next three days, limiting my preparation time. (Brad Beck, whom I know from Liberty Toastmasters, drafted me; he’s on the board of the organization.) When I walked into the room about half an hour early, the students were cheering and playing some sort of game, and I realized I had not correctly envisioned the setting. This was more like a pep rally, not a lecture hall.

But I gulped and took the microphone, determined to make the presentation as interactive and engaging as I could. Before my segment I saw several students stand to offer their views on a couple of topics, and this gave me the idea to simply ask them to answer the question of the day, “Do media report the news or make the news?” Hands quickly shot up. Three students arose to offer their views, and I was struck by how similar their answers were to those of the professional journalists who had replied to the same question. The first student talked about the selectivity issue; the second argued that media both report and make the news. More hands went up, but after the first three I decided to plow ahead with my own notes.

(I do encourage people to read the interesting replies I posted Friday from Jason Salzman, Michael Sandoval, Ed Quillen, Ken Clark, and David Harsanyi. I even tried to get Salzman to come out to the event, but he had a prior engagement, so I thought that I could at least bring in a variety of views.)

So, do the media report the news or make it? As an example of simple reporting, I mentioned the Denver Post’s story of the police hunt for a man who kidnapped and assaulted a Denver girl. Some sorts of stories are more amenable to straight reporting, and they’re difficult to slant.

However, the media certainly do “make the news” in a couple of different ways. They can make the news in the sense of pushing a story into community discussion, as by reporting an instance of political corruption. And they can make the news by pushing a story into wider media coverage (as Salzman did with his reporting of Scott McInnis’s water articles).

Then I added a third category: journalists can sometimes “make up” the news as well, and that’s uniformly bad. They can either skew the reported facts, or they can omit obviously relevant facts.

The problem is (and the students pushed this point pretty hard in the question-and-answer period) that journalism inherently involves judgment calls both in the selectivity of what to report and of how to present a story. I used as an example another Denver Post story: “Rep. Lamborn backs bid to unplug National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden.” I noted that story selected the following source as its first quote: “‘NREL is a crown jewel in the world of renewable energy,’ said Leslie Oliver, a spokeswoman for Perl mutter. ‘It’s providing a lot of jobs; those are things we need to be fostering.'” I pointed out that this would have been a much different story if the headline had emphasized the effort to trim federal spending, and if the first quote had pertained to saving our children and grandchildren from a crushing national debt. So definitely this story is slanted, but is that bad?

One great thing about the modern internet age, I pointed out, is that we have unprecedented access to alternative media sources. With this comes the ability to interact with the media, and even join the media, in remarkable ways. If we don’t like what a paper is covering, or how they’re covering it, we may interact with journalists, write blog posts, etc.

I had a forty minute time slot, and the idea was for me to talk for half that time. But immediately after I finished with my (more or less) prepared remarks, I realized I should have shut up much sooner to allow for more questions. Maybe twenty kids lined up to pepper me with tough questions, and the moderators had to turn some students away due to time constraints.

One student asked me whether the media should be more positive. I wasn’t sure what that meant, I answered; is it being “negative” to hammer a corrupt politician? The student clarified she was asking about selecting more positive stories from among all the many possible stories. I answered that, yes, I’d like to see more reporting about interesting people in business and the nonprofit world. I mentioned a Wall Street Journalarticle about George Mitchell, who has dramatically expanded U.S. production of natural gas, as an example of something I found very positive and inspiring.

I got a question about libel; does that not solve the problem of “making up” the news? I answered that libel laws can protect people against the most egregious cases of malicious lying, but if the bar is set too low everyone will cry “libel” over any alternative interpretation of the facts. Plus (though I’m not sure I explained this point well) a story can be technically accurate in every detail but still fundamentally distort reality by dropping context and omitting the relevant facts. (Elsewhere I made this point by invoking Rita Skeeter, the corrupt journalist from the Harry Potter series. I was pleased to see the students are Potter fans.)

At one point I mentioned censorship ultimately remains the greatest threat to a society’s future, but I didn’t explain this as well as I might have. The essential point, as Ayn Rand pointed out, is that so long as we retain freedom of speech, we have the ability to fight for the ideas we believe in. There’s always a chance, always hope, so long as we remain free to articulate our views. Moreover, censorship invariably accompanies various other governmental abuses, and, by blocking criticism of the government, makes greater abuses inevitable.

I suggested the students take the time to fully appreciate the advantages of the modern internet age. Their parents, I pointed out, were born before the age of home computers. Now most of the students have the ability to browse the internet on portable devices, putting the world’s newspapers — and many alternative news sources — at their fingertips. I suggested that the students think seriously about how they can engage the media in order to help direct the course of the culture. These students certainly have the informed eloquence to do so.


Bradley Craig Beck commented June 6, 2011 at 11:52 AM
Thanks for a great presentation. The HOBY Ambassadors enjoyed your information and perspective on the media. Your posing the question to others helped broaden the conversation. Great examples and an excellent closing, focusing on freedom of speech and the issue of censorship. As young leaders our Ambassadors need to understand the importance of articulating their views. Your call to action on engaging and participating as a citizen journalist was well received and helped to connect all the dots. Best regards,
Bradley Beck – HOBY Colorado