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Guest Commentary: Media burdens run two ways

Lee Hamilton

I was chatting with a group of students the other day when one of them looked me in the eye and commented, "You're very tough on journalists." I had to plead guilty.

Of course, I'm tough on journalists. Maybe even as tough on them as they are on politicians.

Our representative democracy depends on journalists doing their jobs.

Why? Because it's essential that citizens get the solid, accurate and fair information they need to make good judgments about politicians and policy decisions. Our system can't work if journalists and the institutions they work for don't shoulder the burden of serving as watchdogs, holding government accountable, shining a light on overlooked challenges and exploring complicated issues in as clear-eyed a manner as possible.

Which is why, if you value representative democracy, you have to be deeply concerned about the once-over-lightly journalism that fills our media. Too often, reporters, commentators and online contributors focus on trivia, partisan posturing and political gamesmanship, and not on the substance of issues.

The disruptive forces that have laid waste to traditional journalistic organizations have pared down the newsrooms that can carry out in-depth journalism and investigative reporting. Yet the world we live in is so complicated and so difficult to understand that the need is greater than ever for journalists to pick out what really matters in their communities or in the nation and convey solid information to the citizen.

I have no illusions about how difficult this is. Nailing down good information requires a lot of effort, persistence and time. A single story can take months to follow carefully. Making sense of the issues that affect us — in politics, the legal system, medicine, war and peace, the economy — requires patience, expertise, analytical skill and the ability to convey complexity in a simple fashion.

The prevalence of fake news and misinformation makes this search for objective truth ever more difficult and challenging. If we don't have the right information as citizens, then we don't have the facts to shape our opinions — and we're going to be in trouble as a nation.

Disentangling truth and untruth from the citizen's standpoint is really hard. So I applaud and admire journalists who are dedicated to truth. And there are enough of them that there is still plenty of good, solid reporting.

It's not always easy to find, though, amidst all the less-than-solid noise that fills our media landscape. This places a particular burden on us, as citizens, to work hard to find it and understand it. Especially because some of the institutions we once relied upon for independent, objective information — I'm thinking specifically of Congress here — have increasingly stopped serving as models for the search for truth.

The plain truth is, there's much to distract both journalists and citizens from what's really necessary to cover and to understand. Sorting through all the information at our fingertips, distilling meaning from it, zeroing in on what's really important — that's work that both journalists and ordinary citizens have to undertake.

If you're a local journalist, that means looking into every nook and cranny of government and chasing down what's important and what doesn't add up. For more broad-based journalists, the responsibility is to look at events, analyze them and convey what needs to be conveyed to the public to make sound decisions about good governance.

And for citizens, it means conscientiously following reliable, fact-oriented media — and not just a single source, either, because none has a monopoly on the truth — and using their reporting to make discriminating judgments about public affairs.

Getting all of this right is essential to making our government work. Journalists have to ask themselves whether they are getting to the bottom of stories and giving enough information to citizens so they can make good judgments — or are they too focused on trivia and entertainment and posturing? And citizens — whose media tastes drive so much of what the media provide — need to be focused on what matters.

It's a complicated dance, but in the end, it comes down to one thing: journalists need to provide, and citizens need to ask for, the reporting that's necessary to make the country work.

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