I spent six years as a daily newspaper reporter covering cops and courts, city councils, legislatures in three states, Congress the White House and various crooks and scoundrels on the investigative beat. My parents met in a newsroom where, it was said, journalism was known as “the last refuge of the vaguely talented.”
I mourn the decline of newspapers, but I’m not bitter. As time passes, I’m less inclined to view reporting as some sort of calling and more as a skill with many applications, and one that is critical to organizations in the form of brand journalism.
Political Scientist Daniel Hallin in his book The Uncensored War defined three “spheres” of journalism. The first is the Sphere of Consensus, where the topics include issues like genocide, slavery, and childhood obesity. In this sphere of topics, journalists are under no compunction to present differing points of view. They can take a side confident that their objectivity is intact.
The second sphere – that of “Legitimate Controversy,” is the journalists’ wheelhouse, where objectivity is the definition of the profession and those who want the title devote significant effort to balance. The third is called the Sphere of Deviance, where aliens, talking dogs and legitimate rape reside – the ridiculous and irrelevant, considered unworthy of legitimate attention.
Dallin’s key point is that the explosion of new media has not only fractured traditional coverage of events, it has changed the definition by certain journalists and audiences of all the spheres and greatly expanded that second sphere. What is “Legitimate Controversy” is in dispute.
Climate change is a good example. Scientific agreement on the subject often takes a back seat to political dispute and sometimes has obligated journalists to legitimize denial of fact – in this case that human activity is accelerating climate change – by reporting the partisan back and forth. The debate about the role of reporters in this expansion of “legitimate” controversy is a prominent insider topic. It even got noticed by Aaron Sorkin in an HBO Newsroom script, where one of the chiefs declares, “We don’t pretend that facts are in dispute to give the appearance of fairness to people who don’t believe them.”
For advocates and brands the shifting media landscape once meant only fewer outlets and journalists and a greater chance that issues not “on fire” would be pushed to secondary and tertiary importance. But it’s worse in an era when news audiences are increasingly segregating themselves into camps favoring their favorite flavor of advocacy, from FOX and the Wall Street Journal to MSNBC, NPR and the New York Times.
It’s dicey enough to rely on a shrinking earned media pool to tell your story, but it’s even worse to depend on journalists in “earned media” to accurately portray your legitimacy or even to hold or maintain any sort of positive narrative on your behalf. That’s your job. And journalists would be the first to agree, no matter what sphere they orbit around.