What is news?

Kathrine Nero

There was a time not so long ago when families dropped what they were doing and gathered around the TV set in the evening at precisely 6:30pm to watch THE NEWS.

It was the only way to find out what was happening in your neighborhood, your city and the world until the next morning, when the newspaper arrived on your doorstep.

NBC’s Tom Brokaw was practically a part of our family, his voice the soundtrack to our weeknight dinners. I even chose my seat at the dining room table because it had the best view of the living room TV. It was then I knew that I wanted to be involved in some way in delivering the news.

Back then, the access was solely in the hands of journalists. So were the decisions about what made the news, how much it was covered, and the way it was presented.

These days, that access is in your hands. And mine. And everyone’s.

A Changing Industry

The answer to the question ‘What is news?” is a complicated one. To answer it, we’re going to have to go all the way back to the infancy of America.

Journalism is the only profession our founding fathers explicitly guard in the Constitution. The First Amendment protects journalists from interference from the government, a way for the industry to serve as a watchdog of politicians: the Fourth Estate. Today, the attack on journalism is coming from “outside the house.” To quote the great philosopher Taylor Swift, “I’m the problem – it’s me.” In fact, we all are.

We, the American people, with our social media platforms, our selective algorithms, our ability to read the news we want, when we want, where we want – we are the biggest threat to news.

I call it the Reese’s Puffs Theory. When I moved into an off-campus house in college, my roommate one summer had never lived away from home. Her first purchase? Three giant boxes of Reese’s Puffs cereal, because her parents thought it was too sugary and banned it from the breakfast table.

That’s precisely what we’re doing right now in choosing our own newsfeed: selective exposure. The more we engage with the content we like, the more algorithms show us similar stories. No more than Reese’s Puffs can’t exclusively sustain a college student’s diet, news we like can’t make up all that we consume.

Who controls the news?

Traditional journalism, as it was created, put reporters in the position of both the information provider and collector. Journalists gathered the news, put it in story form and retold it to their audience. Now, anyone can be that first informer: the person who records video of a controversial traffic stop, reports a tornado touchdown in their backyard, or snaps a pic of a celebrity at a local chili parlor.

But journalists are trained to find and tell all sides of the story – something citizen journalists aren’t. The line is now blurred between reporter, blogger, influencer – and someone who might not be sharing accurate or truthful information.

That’s not to say that citizen journalism is all bad. It can shine light on inconsistencies, reveal controversies, and set professional journalists on a path to find answers to questions they might not have even known existed. Citizen journalists are the eyes and ears of the public – and always have been. It’s only recently that what they found can be pushed out to the masses, which brings with it a greater spotlight – and scrutiny.

How do we decide what is news?

News consumers in the 21st century need to have a dose of healthy skepticism, as it’s difficult sometimes to figure out if a story is coming from a respected outlet, or someone out to share only part of the story.

So how can you determine if something is real or “fake news?”

First, “fake news” is a real thing, but it’s not just news we don’t like. We don’t have to agree with stories for them to be truthful. We must separate opinion – both ours and potential media slant – from fact.

Ask yourself:

  • Does the media outlet seem real? Reputable news sites have established names without misspellings or strange punctuation. Be careful here: some fake outlets will take on names that seem realistic.
  • Who wrote it? A quick internet search will reveal if the reporter is legitimate. Are they a reporter – or are they an expert writing from their position of bias? Good reporters can provide context for a story, letting us know why it’s important to us.
  • Is the headline or tease accurate? They can be sensational, and not always realistic. Don’t be swayed by a salacious headline without reading the entire article first.
  • Does the story check out factually? Can you find similar reporting from established news outlets? If not, ask yourself WHY.
  • And finally – what is the purpose of this story? Is it trying to mislead you or push a certain agenda? Or is it revealing truths that are hard to see/read?

Gathering around the TV to watch the evening news is no longer a shared experience for modern families. The platform may have changed, but the goal of a more informed public hasn’t. We have more information as a society than we ever have before, but that also means we have more difficulty deciding truth from falsehood, fact from opinion. It’s never been more important for us as news consumers to understand the process and the delivery methods of modern journalism to decide for ourselves: What is news?

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