True news has substance

Jimmy Fallon isn't going to cover the Maryland election.

Someone recently told me that she watches the news on TV every night. Her news broadcast of choice: "Entertainment Tonight."

That brand of news is salacious, unbelievable and "ah" inducing — requisites for obtaining top advertising dollars. And for too many people, that user-friendly news is the only news that counts. It's tweet-able. It's memorable. And it's delectable. Examples include Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and the disc jockeys (boy, isn't that a dated title?) who distill major news stories into two sentences. These facts are mere setups for their jokes or their self-righteous opinions masquerading as fact.

But those enticed by this news have no knowledge of the important general election in Maryland, which has been left to the local media to cover. Candidates for governor in Maryland would have to trade actual punches, not just barbs, to garner Colbert kind of coverage.

How can we possibly determine locally and nationally who best to help boost the economy, address tax and budget issues and tackle unexpected domestic and foreign challenges if the "big news" is how much Kim Kardashian charges to advertise a product? (A minimum of $1 million, in case you missed it on WNEW-FM a few days ago.)

Consuming important news is not unlike exercising. We know we need to do it, for our health, for our sanity, and for our future. Most days I get through the Baltimore Sun, the New York Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. But at a cost: I haven't run in three weeks and counting.

My commitment to daily news puts me in the minority. Subscriptions to newspapers are down, as is interest in the nightly news and Sunday talk shows. With few exceptions, most big news is first spread through phone alerts and word-of-mouth. By the time big news appears in the print newspaper, it's day-old. But often, that distance from the event invites a more informed news report.

The same technological improvements in part responsible for this "insta-news" trend also seeds great journalism. Reporters and editors now employ powerful tools, including computerized records, the ability to text sources and social media feeds that inform us in exciting, new ways. Take, for example, this newspaper's coverage of problems with a company that ran a troubled group home for disabled children in Anne Arundel County. That insightful coverage fulfills the Fourth Estate's mission: to keep government in check.

But we, the audience for news, are only as good as what we receive. WBAL-AM, a self-described radio news station, offers the "three things you need to know," as does WLIF-FM, a popular music station. (Their three things differ greatly.) You can find "five things you need to know" on USA Today's website. And the Baltimore Sun website, features "three things you need to know." If all we "need" to know can be compressed into a few quick hits, then why even present the remaining information on websites, in newspapers and elsewhere? Readership in a newspaper or interest in the local TV news might increase if we could plow through the "news" in a few minutes. Why not a 10-minute, no, five-minute; no, three-minute news wrap, put on the TV station's website? This approach could free precious TV time for more reality TV and magic-based dramas. (I fear writing this paragraph, even with tongue firmly in cheek, because someone might just do it.)

"The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers," Thomas Jefferson wrote. A despotic "government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper."

Jefferson's words, written 229 years ago, ring truer today than he could have imagined. The platforms on which the news is spread have changed. But the need to ensure that we can distinguish true news from false news is no less vital, no matter how appealing the latter is. Without true news, we have no news, no democracy and an uncertain future.

Bob Graham is a lecturer in the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering Center for Leadership Education. His email is bgraham@jhu.edu.

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