Dealing with the hazards of news that’s always on

Staff Writer
Brownwood Bulletin
Gene Deason

When everybody has the basic tools of journalism in their hands — things like a camera and a means to publish — we see and learn things we might never know. Without amateur video of the incidents, the stories of Ahmaud Aubery and George Floyd might have never been told.

However, there are situations where these tools can generate inaccurate orincomplete stories when distributed without the oversight of a trustworthy editor.

Opinions can get presented as facts, and even professionals are not immune.

Here are two examples, predictably related to the blood-sport we call political campaigning.

The first involves former President Barack Obama’s non-endorsement of a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. All the candidates offered video of themselves with the 44th president, but throughout the primaries this year, Obama officially endorsed no one. Yet Newsweek reported last year that a majority of those surveyed incorrectly believed that Obama had made an endorsement.

The second example involves a concert in Detroit, where Garth Brooks wanted to endear himself with fans — as if he needed to — by wearing Barry Sanders’ No. 20 football jersey on stage. Countless people saw photos of Brooks with “Sanders” and “20,” and jumped to the conclusion that Garth was supporting Bernie Sanders for president in 2020.

Complex issues are too often condensed into soundbites or headlines that may or may not accurately reflect news. Even when corrections or clarifications follow later, they may not be noticed. The initial, incomplete report is often the one that sticks.

It doesn’t help that internet news pages are apparently being designed to create views, also known as clicks. Articles are spread out across several dozen successive tabs — each with its own assortment of clustered advertisements. Also, headlines aren’t being written anymore to give you the heart of the story. They’re being written to draw you in and create additional pages for advertising.

For decades, one of the first lessons in news reporting classes has involved the“inverted pyramid.” It means stories should be written with the core of the news in the first paragraph with subsequent paragraphs following up with additional details as the article proceeds. If the reader has time, every bit of the information is ultimately provided. However, if the reader is in a hurry, the basic facts are provided in the opening sentences.

Plus, the headline must summarize the story accurately. At least, that’s how I was taught to do it.

How many stories on the internet have you seen where the headline teases you with something like “Police open weird-smelling freight, find chilling cargo”? So you click on two dozen “next” buttons before giving up. That cargo was probably just thawing fish.

Consider these other online stories I choose at random:

“No one has been on the Moon since 1972, and now we know why.” I spent fiveminutes reading this, and I still don’t know why.

“This French forest is hiding a deadly secret.” It’s a good thing for me I don’tplan to visit France.

Let’s pause to consider the bigger picture, and to understand how we — thesuperficially informed general public — can be misled. And while being misled, we might even get played by special interests with the goal of getting us to react.

Actually, I’m coming around to the notion that we have been being played for some time now, and I’m not sure everyone pulling the strings has honorable intentions.

In the old days, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen would bring their photos and first-hand reports from an event back to the news department of The Daily Planet. They would have learned that there was more to their story than what they originally thought was happening. They would bounce their observations off their editor, the seasoned but outwardly gruff Perry White. Perry would have posed questions about their thoroughness, fairness, and accuracy. Then Clark Kent would have ducked into the supply closet so a particular superhero could make an appearance.

That was then. This is now.

Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at