Journalism’s common, incomplete metaphor
When I was a cub reporter, my editor told me — as editors have told cub reporters throughout the eons — that journalism aims to hold a mirror up to the community.
It’s one of journalism’s most oft-repeated metaphors, aiming to depict our desire to show our communities exactly as they are — good, bad, and ugly — without fear, favor, commentary or slant.
That’s noble, but I’ve always thought that was an incomplete metaphor.
Good journalism holds a mirror. Great journalism does a bit more.
When we look in the mirror in the morning, what we see can be shaped and slanted by all kinds of things.
If we’re in a good mood and a few things have gone our way, we might ignore a wrinkle or two, disregard a paunch hanging over the belt, explain away that white hair showing in our beard. When we feel like a million bucks, we think we look it, too.
Conversely, if we’re in a bad mood, we might obsess over all those things and think we’re the oldest, fattest man to ever step out a front door.
Or — even more poignant to this column — what if we see a mole?
Depending on our own biases toward medicine and our own backgrounds and experiences, we may each see something different when looking at a mole popping out of our necks.
Some of us may shrug it off entirely. Others may panic and start making their final preparations, confident they’re going to die of skin cancer. Some may fall somewhere in between, concerned enough to schedule a doctor’s appointment but not so concerned we let it disrupt the rest of our lives.
The point is that a mirror by itself is not biased but does nothing to arm those standing before it with enough information to overcome their own uninformed biases. A mirror by itself lets folks enter the world convinced of what they think they saw, regardless of whether what they think they saw is skewed by bad information.
So, good journalism brings a mirror so at least readers can see the mole on their neck.
But great journalism also brings a whole team of doctors who can stand with readers and provide them first, second and third opinions about whether or not they should worry about that mole and, more importantly, how they can respond if the mole is something to fret over.
In practice, it means this: Reporters don’t tell you what Alpena County’s poverty rate is. They also speak to experts who can knowledgably say why the poverty rate is what it is, other experts who have informed ideas about the best ways to turn that statistic around, and others still who have experienced poverty and can illustrate its true effects.
Doing so doesn’t tell readers what to think. It only provides readers with the information they need to make informed decisions about how they should respond — or if they should respond — to the ills in their community.
When we bring more voices to stand with readers in front of their mirrors, readers remain free to disregard the information or seek their own counsel, but at least they can do so having been provided with the information they need to make those decisions.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.