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Sunday, January 24, 2021

Lee Hamilton: For our nation to thrive, journalism must shine

I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to journalism, I’m a traditionalist. Old-fashioned, even. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that even while confidence in the media drops to new lows and Time magazine feels moved to wonder “Is Truth Dead?” on its cover, huge numbers of Americans have come to believe the media is not as authoritative as it once was.

Straightforward, responsible journalism is an indispensable public asset, a cornerstone of democratic life. This is threatened by the trends reshaping the media landscape. With less consensus around information and data, the cohesiveness of our society is diminished.

I’m not just talking about the rise of deliberately “reported” misinformation and disinformation. Some news outlets may not be as egregiously destructive of democratic values, but their urge to chase viewership and clicks at the expense of solid, fact-based reporting is doing us no favors.

In a media world in which opinion serves as the chief currency, rather than straight-ahead reporting of hard truths, politicians face less scrutiny of their statements and less accountability. They are succeeding at manipulating the media by using Twitter, refusing to hold press conferences, restricting questions and cameras, employing set speeches, and refusing to conduct a free-wheeling discussion of their opinions in front of the press.

The result is that significant policy decisions affecting millions of Americans are being drawn up with less scrutiny and promoted as beneficial without the clarifying debate that a representative democracy depends upon.

All is not lost. We are fortunate to still have a number of high-quality news organizations with first-rate reporters who continue to dig deep and uphold high journalistic standards. This is crucial, because we live in an era when solid reporting rooted in high standards of accuracy is not just a goal, but a vital, small “d” democratic necessity.

As consumers of news, we need to encourage the media to pursue the truth and hold its members to account when they stray. And we need to shoulder our responsibility to encourage news organizations to improve. After all, we’re the ones who often turn to fluff rather than substance and consume only stories that reflect our own perspectives. As citizens, we need to step up our own game, too.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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