MTSU’s Dr. Burriss’ on “Reporters and Commentators”



Sometimes I think we in media haven’t done a very good job explaining to the public what we do, and who does what. Which, unfortunately, has led to some serious misunderstandings on the part of the public.

Marc Lewis Farmers Insurance SmyrnaOver the years media outlets have come under criticism for blurring the line between reporters and commentators. Part of the problem is that the public doesn’t understand the difference, but perhaps more importantly, we in the media have blurred those critical distinctions, sometimes deliberately.



So, let’s set some definitions: reporters report the news. They interview people, gather information, then, usually, write about what they find.
This has traditionally been the “who, what, when, where, why and how.”

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At its most basic, reporters aren’t supposed to argue with the people they are interviewing. Reporters are supposed to tell the public, here’s what this person in the news thinks, or here is what they are going to do.

In its simplest form, the resulting news story should be something like, “Senator Smith said she thinks…” followed by whatever it is she thinks.

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But that started to change back in 1932, when the United States went off the gold standard, and reporters had to tell the public what that actually meant, which starts to border on commentary.

Now, we’ve had commentary for years, and it has gone under the name “editorials,” and was always clearly labeled.

And that’s all well and good, except now the distinction has become blurred, and, I often think, deliberately, so commentary is often confused with news, and commentators are often confused with reporters.

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Notice how most newspapers, magazines, broadcast stations and web sites clearly label advertising, so we don’t confuse them with news? Well, news organizations need to do the same thing with commentary: they need to clearly spell out what is news and what is a commentary. And news reporters and anchors shouldn’t be doing commentary. They need to be doing they news.

As for reporters arguing with news sources, or trying to convince a source they are wrong, I have never, and I mean never, heard a source say to an argumentative reporter, “You know you might be right. I guess I was wrong about that.”

So a reporter trying to argue with a source is not only pointless, it’s unprofessional as well.

Poll after poll has shows the public thinks reporters are biased, but I think that is because the public doesn’t understand the difference, because we haven’t done a good job explaining the differences.

For a field that is supposed to help enlighten the public, we could sure do a better job explaining how and why we do what we do.

I’m Larry Burriss.