Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

Columns

June 12, 2014

What we need from the press

There is a place for entertainment that plays off the news, but there is no substitute for dogged reporting and the traditional values of accuracy, truth and fairness.

These days, the scandal involving long wait times at VA hospitals can feel like some made-in-Washington spectacle generated by politicians looking for headlines. But it isn’t. It had its genesis in a late-April report on CNN that as many as 40 veterans may have died waiting for appointments at VA hospitals in Phoenix.

This investigative piece was notable for two reasons. It’s been a while since a news story so quickly provoked such a storm of public indignation that a cabinet secretary — deservedly or not — had no choice but to resign. And it’s a reminder of just how important old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting remains to our system of government, especially when it uncovers official misdoing.

One of the basic truths about our representative democracy is that it does not work without solid information. Public officials, both elected and appointed, need to know what’s happening in the communities they serve, and the people who live in those communities need to know what the government they elect and fund is doing in their name.

A lot of forces try to distort that flow of information, or even block it altogether — from officials who aren’t living up to our expectations to politicians counting on public ignorance to lobbyists and advocates hoping to sway public opinion. This is why the press — and by this I mean print, broadcast and online journalists — is so crucial to our country’s health. It is, or ought to be, a steady, dispassionate, truth-seeking, skeptical and tough-minded force for public understanding.

In an ideal world, our media would focus on the serious side of the news. It would explore and highlight the substance of issues, not simply the politics of issues. It would detail the facts underlying a story, rather than dwelling on the personalities at play in the story. There is a place for entertainment that plays off the news — as people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have amply demonstrated — but in their search for an audience, news executives shouldn’t let it become a substitute for dogged reporting and the traditional values of accuracy, truth and fairness.

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