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GREG HARTON: Covering news not really easy

by Greg Harton | September 27, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

It was a mostly peaceful parade until the convoy of cars passed the Texas Schoolbook Depository.

The massive dirigible had a mostly pleasant journey across the Atlantic before it descended for landing in Lakehurst, N.J.

Except for an incident in the balcony, the play at Ford's Theater was mostly entertaining.


It is the nature of news coverage that beyond-the-ordinary events attract a lot of attention. Promoters of events -- whether it's a Donald Trump rally or a Black Lives Matter protest -- doggedly pursue news coverage that paints their cause in the best possible light.

When Donald Trump says thousands of supporters are outside an arena in Tulsa and the media show only a smattering of people outside, we can count on cries of "fake news" because it strays from the carefully orchestrated campaign message.

When a protest march keeps going and going and going until chants and signs transition into looting and burning, organizers want media to categorize the violent actors as an invasion of instigators or even plants by opposing groups who want to undermine the event's intended message.

Multiple media outlets have drawn criticism for the verbal gymnastics they've engaged in to tiptoe carefully around the fact of violence at protests against police brutality generally or specific instances of police-caused deaths around the country. The term "mostly peaceful" has almost become a punchline after instances of reporters saying it while looting or burning takes place behind them. It gives critics of the media and of the protests a chance to say reporters are trying to cast violence for a cause they agree with in the best light possible.

Journalists can't afford to ignore the most dramatic parts of a day's events, even if they don't represent the intention of the organizers. Sure, context is important and, in the case of protests over racism and law enforcement, journalists, activists, politicians and others must work to understand the entirety of what's happened. In the immediate, though, the drama is news. When the shot rang out at Ford's Theater and the nation's lost its 16th president, the news wasn't about the planned events of the day or the context of his presidency. It was about someone shooting the president as he watched a play.

It is human nature that none of us want to be painted with a broad brush -- essentially at the mercy of others who can severely impact our own reputations. Protesters against police brutality don't all support violence, but they pay a price when it breaks out as they demonstrate. When a heavily armed Second Amendment advocate shoots someone in a criminal act, we're told "most" of the group are law-abiding citizens, but that can be hard to believe in that instant.

Wouldn't we all like to be judged by our own actions? But every profession, group or demographic has to deal the the broad-brush effects. Caring pastors who faithfully assist those in need can be viewed skeptically by those whose only experience might be televangelist Jim Bakker. Scouting leaders who devote themselves to building up young people carry the baggage of those who have used their positions of trust abusively.

And, yes, the nonstop "commentary" of television news contributes greatly to the blending of news and opinion. It's hard to find straight news reporting on any cable news network. We get commentators who say one presidential candidate's nonsensical statement is a slip of the tongue but something similar from the other candidate is a sign of mental deficiency.

Ultimately, reporters should just show or tell what happened. Commentary should be clearly marked as such, as we do in our pages. But in today's landscape, the readers/viewers have to take on a great deal of responsibility to devote time and energy to separating fact from fiction. If we don't, we're all easy targets for getting fooled.

Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.


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