The Last Half Century · The Work World

The Balancing Act of Presenting the News

In the early 1980s I earned a degree in Journalism and went on to graduate school and a teaching assistant position in the Journalism department of my alma mater. I think it’s safe to say that the field of journalism is radically different now than it was nearly 40 years ago. When I graduated from college there was no Internet and no online media. Broadcast and print media were distinct fields — so much so that I changed my major from broadcast to print journalism my Sophomore year in college.

In the early 1980s, journalism tried to maintain separation from the advertising that supported it. Journalist often looked at people in advertising as the hucksters in the business — deceptive people who tried to sell you something. The editorial department was kept separate from the advertising department — almost like church and state. This will help you understand why the head of my Journalism school was upset when I announced I was leaving my teaching assistant position to accept a position as an advertising writer with John Deere. “Oh, so you’re going to the dark side,” he said to me. It was as if I was a traitor, leaving the Jedi to join Darth Vader.

The creed of balanced reporting was presented in many of my journalism classes — the need to maintain journalistic integrity. I recall one of my reporting classes requiring at least five diverse sources for each story we submitted for our assignments. That meant quotes from people on each side of the issue as well as different sources for the same facts relating to the focus of the article. I remember assembling one story where I interviewed a farmer about a housing development bordering his farm. The residents were upset about his farming practices. After that I promptly knocked on doors in the housing development to hear their side of the story. Then I interviewed experts in the agriculture and real estate field to get their perspective. It was a lot of work, but it taught me that there are many facets to an issue.

I recall one journalism class where the professor on the first day asked students to raise their hand if they supported various views on the hot issues of the day. Hands went up as the professor shouted out, “Who supports gun rights; a woman’s right to choose; prayer in the classroom; labor union rights to picket.” When he concluded his poll, he announced to the class, “Never forget that you always approach the story with a bias.” He emphasized that everyone in the room had a bias. “Your job is to provide a balanced story,” he added. “Opinions belong on the Opinion Page.”

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