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Press at its best? Return to the mission

July 5, 2013

Centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson said, “If I had to choose between government without newspapers and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.” The Founding Fathers then went on to guarantee a free press in the Bill of Rights.

A journalist’s responsibility is to uncover facts and information and to distribute that news to the public. By reporting on current events, journalists document the first draft of history. According to the Newseum in Washington, D.C., a free press, at its best, reports the truth.

Each newspaper, magazine, television network, radio channel and website caters to particular interests; each has its own purpose. That mission of that publication determines newsworthy stories for that publication. For cable news networks, that mission involves reporting current events and hard news 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to the public. A cable news network, at its best, reports news defined as affecting people and changing the world.

Right now, the cable news networks are not at their best. This week, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have carried the George Zimmerman trial and left other, hard news, stories to their tickers and websites. When the trial recessed, the networks reported hard news, including the coup in Egypt. When the trial returned, so did its coverage.

According to TVNewser, the big three cable news networks are seeing a ratings boost from carrying the trial proceedings. I understand that there is public interest in the trial, but ratings should not outweigh executing their mission.

The Zimmerman trial should be covered, but it does not need to be carried on four cable news networks every day. There is a rightful place for all types of news coverage, and in this case, that rightful place is HLN.

HLN has a history of covering legal proceedings to this extent, so it should serve that mission. CNN, MSNBC and Fox News should cover the trial but remember they have an obligation to their audience to fully, responsibly and accurately report the rest of the news happening in the world. Nonstop trial coverage is disappointing because it keeps the cable news networks from their mission. One look at CNN Trends shows 10 other stories sparking interest that the networks could be covering.

Different publications and journalism mediums exist because different types of news stories exist. Each publication should focus on its own mission. Ratings should not be the top priority.

I am not going into journalism because I want to produce a show for which my main goal is to win the ratings war. I am going into journalism because I believe I have a responsibility to help set a better course for the future through my work in the field.

The Founding Fathers, I would imagine, did not give the press its freedoms because they hoped the press would sensationalize news and compete for ratings. They guaranteed those freedoms because they believed the people had a right to know about the world in which they live. Sometimes it seems like modern media outlets have forgotten that.

Journalism students learn the TIPCUP (Timeliness, Impact, Proximity, Conflict, Uniqueness, Prominence) acronym for determining news. These days, it seems cable news networks emphasize conflict (the Zimmerman trial) and prominence (Paula Deen) when they should prioritize impact. Cable news networks were created to inform the public about hard news impacting their lives and the world. Other networks and publications were created to cover the other letters in TIPCUP.

I believe in the future of journalism. I believe in journalism’s goodness and power, and I believe journalists today are doing great things. But I also believe the cable news networks were not at their best this week. To get there, they must return to their missions and fully record that first draft of history. They have a responsibility to the American public to do so.


From → Miscellaneous

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