This morning I was chatting with a couple here in Cooperstown, NY, where I'm spending a few days, and expressed relief to them that our home in Myrtle Beach, SC had been spared from any damage as a result of Hurricane Dorian.
"We were very fortunate," I said. "Our neighborhood, which is about 10 minutes from the beach, was completely spared. We didn't even lose a shingle."
"That just goes to show you how the media exaggerates," the woman said. "See, it wasn't really that bad. They always make things seem worse than they really are."
I explained that many communities along the east coast had suffered serious damage from the storm surge and winds, to say nothing of the devastation that cost untold numbers of lives in the Bahamas. "It wasn't exaggeration," I assured her.
The woman clearly is an idiot. Nevertheless, why do so many people inherently mistrust the news media these days? Yes, I know, the logical response is to blame these attitudes on Donald Trump and his constant denigration of the mainstream news media (MSM) as "Fake News," and the right wing media echo chamber that supports and repeats such claims.
But still, should the MSM share some of the blame for such distrust?
Over the years, my observation as a journalist is that it should. Increasingly, the distinction between factual reporting and opinion-based editorials has become blurred. It's found its way into virtually every media outlet and, unfortunately, onto the news pages and newscasts of some of the most respected publications and news outlets in the nation.
When I first began as a journalist with the wire service, United Press International, the distinction was eminently clear. Stick to the facts. Don't sensationalize. Never exaggerate. Check your sources. And always report the truth. Those were just some of the standards that were supposed to guide our work as journalists.
Even as a young reporter, I became angered at what I viewed as the shallow sensationalism of television news, which increasingly seemed to be built upon drama and a never ending chase for ratings. Now, with the advent of social media, all of this seems to have worsened. Standards of journalism do not exist on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. And, all too often postings become the genesis of news reports, which then get shared and sent into the universe until they go viral.
Of course, the fact that we have a president who parrots such postings as fact does not help matters as his legions believe whatever he says, no matter how outrageous. And then it gets repeated on the likes of Fox News and Brightbart, and what began as fiction somehow becomes fact.
So it's no wonder that people, like the woman cited above, distrust what they see and hear and read in the media, and that is a dangerous thing for our country -- especially in this era when even our leaders cannot be trusted to tell the truth.
The news media has a sacred trust, and that means it must always scrupulously report the truth, separate fact from fiction, and withstand the temptation to use the power of news reports to retaliate against attacks, unfair as they may be. Separate news from opinion, and make the distinction clear. And stop exaggerating.
The press absolutely must remain free from intimidation and political control if it is to protect the citizenry with the most powerful weapon of all, the truth. But for that to happen, it must meet its own responsibilities, as well.