Thoughts & Essays

Good Journalism: You suck at the news. Stop it.

People talk about “the news” like it used to be better than it is now. That’s not the case. “The news” has always been at least semi-unreliable.

It’s Always Been Bad News

Sheets of news have existed just about since we invented writing crap down. Proto-newspapers were popping up in ancient Rome as government-issued bulletins. In the 1500s governments were circulating one-sheet news notices, and in the 1600s business people started putting these sheets of news together using the printing press.

The first newspaper in France, the Gazette de France, was established in 1632 by the king’s physician Theophrastus Renaudot (1586-1653), with the patronage of Louis XIII. All newspapers were subject to pre-publication censorship, and served as instruments of propaganda for the monarchy. [Wikipedia]

Propaganda has existed for even longer, and circulating the news and propaganda go hand-in-hand. As soon as human beings starting writing crap down and handing it out to their friends, they were lying about what they were writing down to influence their friends. That’s just how people work.

Here’s some sources from Wikipedia: History of Propaganda | Newspaper | History of Journalism. Yeah, I know, Wikipedia is like the gold medal winner of lazy sourcing when it comes to things like this, but it’s what I have to hand and it all looks pretty accurate, so work with me here.

The term “yellow journalism” was coined all the way back in the 1890s. Yellow journalism is “a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. [Wikipedia]” Sound familiar? It might not, because we mostly call it “clickbait” these days, folks. Shoot, we were even doing listicles, those icky little list articles everyone hates so much, way back in the day.

And that’s not even mentioning the Spanish-American War, probably one of the more egregious examples of bad journalism I have to hand. The Spanish-American War was basically started by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, and if those names sound familiar it’s because they’re now synonymous with good journalism. Those guys? Invented yellow journalism as we know it. Then they used it to start a war.

So “the news” has always been garbage. The Internet didn’t make it bad, it hasn’t gotten particularly worse, people haven’t gotten dumber – it’s always been this way. This is just how people work. Guys, people thought A Modest Proposal, which was written in 1729 and was about poor Irish people eating their own babies to solve the problem of poverty, was serious. We’ve been falling for Onion articles since almost 260 years before The Onion was even founded.

That Doesn’t Mean There Isn’t Any Good News

Good journalists do amazing work all the time, and have been for decades. Probably centuries.

The Times invented sending out war correspondents during the Crimean War (1853-1856), and the reporting done by those correspondents led to major reforms in battlefield medical care [Wikipedia].

William Thomas Stead pioneered investigative journalism (and tabloid journalism, the two kind of went hand-in-hand) in the late 1800s, and used it to break the Eliza Armstrong case, a sensational story about child prostitution in England that revealed the selling of children into prostitution and the blind eye that officials were turning to the practice, and resulted in the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. (He actually ended up in jail for his part in the story.)

In 1887, Nellie Bly wrote 10 Days in a Mad House for the New York World and broke the story of the horrific treatment endured by the patients of Bellevue Hospital, a New York insane asylum.

In the 70s, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post broke the Watergate scandal.

On December 16, 2015, ProPublica and the Marshall Project published An Unbelievable Story of Rape, some of the best damned journalism I’ve ever read.

Good journalism happens constantly. It isn’t even hard to find. The tricky part is that it’s often mixed in with bad journalism.

The News Is Actually Your Responsibility

I often hear people decry the state of the news, as though it’s fallen so far from its former, lofty origins, and this is bullshit. The news has always been heavily mixed with bias, agendas, propaganda and frequently, flat lies. That’s been the case practically since the inception of the newspaper, and that’s the case today.

Finding the “truth” is hard. It takes effort and practice, and even then, you’re probably not going to get the actual unvarnished objective truth. But if you work at it, you can often get the gist of things.

You have to read a lot of news. You have to read good journalism and bad journalism. You have to read right-leaning sources and left-leaning sources. You have to read liars and paragons of virtue. And then you average all that together and come up with something in the middle, that’s probably about as close to the truth as anyone who wasn’t actually there to see it happen is likely to get.

It takes time. A fair chunk of my day is taken up with scanning various stories. It takes effort. I have a whole process set up for gathering news that involves probably a hundred different sources of information or more, all fetched by various social media platforms, websites and RSS readers. And it takes practice. When I first started out it took me hours to suss out the gist of a given story. Now I can do it in 15 minutes or so, because I know which sources to read and where to find them and who will be updating live in a trustworthy fashion and who checks their sources and who doesn’t and which sources will lie and sensationalize and which ones won’t.

And it’s on you to do all that. If you want to be informed, if you want good journalism, it’s on you to go find it, support it, and show it to people.