The #1 News Tip

Official_Presidential_portrait_of_Thomas_Jefferson_(by_Rembrandt_Peale,_1800)(cropped).jpg

The #1 News Tip: G.O.Y.A.A.K.O.D.

It seems everyone today hates the news.

Whether they’re bemoaning the “other side” pushing their agenda, or worried about “fake news” running rampant or just getting angry at news sites that seem more interested in generating controversial clickbait headlines than delving into the nuance that makes a story not only fair, but worth reading, people are pissed at journalists and reporters at least as much as they are politicians.

This is neither a new turn of events, nor surprising.

Even Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president, would turn on the press.. Though he is often quoted by reporters from earlier in his life for stating, “The freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by a despotic government,” by the time he was actually sitting in the white house, he had come to hate the news and reporters, uttering comments like, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.”

So, if you thought that Trump was the first president to bemoan fake news while in office, well, you just haven’t read enough history I’m afraid.

But how is it that even champions of the press like Jefferson eventually turn on the profession? Is it something endemic to the trade? Some universal element?

I think it is, but it’s not something that seems apparent at first. It’s also not any of the easy to identify problems that are commonly talked about.

It isn’t partisanship or bias. The news, from the beginning, was always a nexus for strident political opinion to get published and distributed by the masses, and it has consistently distorted the truth of events. The Boston Massacre is one of the most famous events in pre-revolutionary American history and it’s one of the greatest examples of truth exaggerated for the purposes of political manipulation ever. If you ever do a deep dive into the case, especially John Adams’ defense of the British redcoats who were charged with the crime, the clamoring narrative from American colonists that they had mercilessly and wantonly murdered completely innocent people for no justified reason quickly falls apart.

But that narrative supported revolution and inspired colonial American anger against the British, so it was maintained and spread . . . by folks like Thomas Jefferson.

My point here is only that bias and political partisanship have always been part and parcel with news reporting, and certainly a major factor as to why people turn against the industry simply has to do with the fact that people don’t like it when narratives that run counter to their beliefs get published, and will validate as true any narrative that reinforces those beliefs instead. This is how it has always been, and it’s not a unique feature of the news industry, but just of humanity itself.

So what is the unique failing point that actually does diminish news reporting? Which has always been present but has gotten worse over time, apart from partisanship?

In a word, it’s simple: laziness.

Even during my brief time attending school to gain my journalism degree, one thing has become readily apparent about many - though certainly not all - reporters. They often want to seek the simplest path to getting the basic elements of their stories.

If they need a quote, they won’t harangue a potential source or interview subject until they get it, but rather send a polite email. If the source insists that they need a set of emailed questions sent in advance rather than consenting to a phone or in-person interview, they’ll relent. If they have the option between just a phone call and actually sitting down with someone face to face, they’ll settle for the call.

It makes sense. When you’re actively working for a publication, the greatest commodity and largest dangling knife of Damocles in your life is time. You’re always looking for the most efficient way to get the story done and out in order to hit deadline. Even when you do, you need to immediately move on to the next story and the next interview subject and the next source, because you have to feed the beast that is the news cycle for your publication’s region and audience.

The end result of this behavior however, is that it leads to lazy thinking. If you’re taking too many shortcuts in how you get the information you need too often, you’re also likely to start taking shortcuts in how you think about the reporting itself. This leads to publications generating the easiest, laziest content they can, and it’s this desire for extreme expediency that always makes the prospect of rage inducing clickbait or unthinking op-eds attractive to an outlet.

But there is a solution. One that isn’t “let’s just hope all of a sudden people agree about their political opinions magically.”

During my first journalism class ever, “Writing to Sell,” my professor Lyndon Stambler, who had written for a number of major publications including the L.A. Times, talked about this kind of reporter. The guy (or gal) who basically was always actually inside the newsroom all day, only ever making phone calls to get quotes and information and never leaving to see things for themselves. Even if the event they were covering was only a handful of blocks away from the office!

Nowadays this type of lazy, stay in one place, reporting mostly centers around email and social media communication, but the issue is still the same - reporters who do not want to get outside of their comfort zones, and so, they just don’t.

But to be a good reporter, at least in my belief, you have to actually be there. You have to get up, get out, and get to looking people in the eye when you talk to them. You never know what you’re going to notice, what vivid details might bring the story to life, what natural in-person conversational flow might occur if you don’t actually show up and meet people where they are.

So I follow the incredibly strained acronym Stambler told me: G.O.Y.A.A.K.O.D. or “Get Off Your Ass and Knock on Doors!”

In my experience thus far, GOYAAKOD has led me to learning far more about all the different subjects, people, and events in my reporting than any amount of patient emails sent out or social media direct messages sent. Actually getting out into the real world and often quite literally knocking on the door of someone’s office or home unannounced has led to gaining information and context I never would have discovered. It’s led to stories that might have simply been regurgitated blurbs from press releases turning into stories that could easily be features rather than simply brief blotter items.

Now, this won’t fix absolutely everything about fake news or frustrating click bait, most certainly. Some people really are out there trying to manipulate, evangelize, or cajole for their own purposes through the media. Some people just don’t care and will never care beyond doing the minimum.

But I don’t believe in doing the minimum. And I advocate that every reporter, no matter how small the publication is that you work for, needs to keep GOYAAKOD in mind in order to ensure that they don’t fall into the lazy thought patterns endemic in the industry.

You can’t necessarily change everyone else, but you can change yourself. If it’s for the better, others will want to emulate you. And if enough of us start doing it this way, instead of the easy way . . . well, maybe, just maybe, people might start learning to trust the news again.

We might just be able to turn the old, bitter, President Jeffersons of the world back into their more optimistic younger selves. At least on the issue of the news.