Deciphering the News: Interview With Bill Kovach

Jane Dobija, Senior Librarian, Memorial Branch Library,
Photo of Bill Kovach

Our democracy holds us, its citizens, responsible for knowing what the issues are, and how we intend to vote on them. Journalists, for their part, are responsible for providing us with the information we need to understand the issues and our choices.

At least, that’s what we traditionally have expected from journalists. But are they really working in the public interest today?

The Los Angeles Public Library reached out to journalism veteran Bill Kovach to answer that question. Bill is a former New York Times Washington bureau chief. He also led the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to two Pulitzer Prizes during his two years there as editor. He later became curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and co-founder and chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. He has traveled around the world, especially in Central/Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc, to support journalists in their quest for a free press.

Here’s what he had to say.

We talk these days about “the crisis” in journalism. In your opinion, is the profession in crisis? If so, how would you characterize that crisis?

Yes, fact-based journalism is in a state of existential crisis at the moment. We live in a time when anyone anywhere in the world with a computer and access to the Internet can create her own news organization. Anyone anywhere can choose which source of “news” to choose, and, human nature being what it is, many if not most will choose the source they agree with. The press itself cannot effectively push back, for it is its integrity that is being discounted. Pushback must be as broad based as possible and must begin with our system of education. Beginning in the earliest years, schools should be educating the next generation on the importance of each individual engaging in a democratic society, beginning with casting a vote that is backed by fact-based information on the issues and candidates.

Major news outlets, especially the larger newspapers, have been charged with having a liberal bias. In the aftermath of Trump’s electoral victory, editors did report having difficulty finding columnists who resonated with the 35 to 45 percent of Americans who voted Trump into office and continue to support him today. Do you see a lack of conservative voices in major news organizations? If so, does this affect our ability to have a civil conversation about our political differences?

Yes. With columnists, that has often been the case. There have been fewer opinion writers with a conservative point of view on the larger national papers largely because those papers are located in major urban areas, where the political point of view is more liberal than elsewhere in the country. As for the news itself, I think there appears to be a liberal bias there, as well. But if the reporters and editors are producing fact-based information, that bias is diluted and mainly eliminated. Trump’s unexpected victory with less than half the popular vote is an example of something else—the loss of revenue by major urban print newspapers as much of that revenue moved to cable TV, and the exploding number of websites. As a result of that economic decline, those newspapers closed their bureaus in regional centers around the world. So the regions, in which Trump’s 40% lived, were under covered, and the majority of people in the country were unaware of the changes they were undergoing.

How can journalists be both critical and balanced in their reporting? For example, if the journalist is reporting on a controversial environmental issue, and s/he knows the veracity of one side is dubious, how does the reporter present the entire controversy without leading readers to believe that both sides in the conflict are equally trustworthy?

I don’t believe any journalist should or can begin reporting while thinking of being critical—only balanced—a balanced report will speak for itself. The reporter should also approach the job with the belief that, when the job is to present both sides of an issue clearly and evenly, the public is smart enough to recognize which side supports their view. That’s how democracy is supposed to work.

What red flags should news consumers be aware of when they are evaluating the quality and credibility of the reports they read, or listen to, or watch?

The most important “flag” is lack of attribution to the source of information. Fact-based reporting is just what it says and should be attributed to that or those facts. Quoted information should note whether or not the person quoted has a personal interest in the subject.

What is your pet peeve about journalism today?

The pressure of producing a newspaper on the Internet means reporters have to break off reporting once or twice an hour to post the latest news on the story being covered. Often, that means an inherent discontinuity as several different reporters are covering the same story to permit these postings. It also means that the material is being gathered right up to the point it is time to set type for the print edition. I’ve worried about just how effectively the updated paragraphs are. This has always concerned me, considering the increasing “grafs” of opinion I seem to see in stories today—even on the front page.

What pro-active steps can we all take to make reporters and editors more responsive to our informational needs as citizens in a democracy?

As always, we have an obligation to personally search for the source of news that best keeps us informed with factual information about issues and events of our time. In order to do so, we have to always challenge our news provider when what they produce does not provide that to us. Let them know often and in detail.

Join us for a conversation about Deciphering the Media at Central Library, Meeting Room A, on Wednesday, April 25, at 12 noon.

And if you would like to learn more about the state of the media, check out our librarian-curated list of journalism web resources.