Many have tried, but no one has really succeeded in defining news.
WHAT IS NEWS?
Definitions range from simple, general ones such as "anything people don't know" and "anything that's new,"to "timely information" and "what people want to know." According to the commonly used "water cooler" definition, news is whatever the office staff is discussing aroundthe water cooler. However, the definition of news can andshould be much more complex. Additionally, journalists must consider that while there may be no limit to what people want to know, what they need to know is another matter entirely.
News is more than just facts and information; it is information that affects us. News affects how we live our lives, how we perform our jobs, how we function as students, and how we make decisions. We decide whether or not to carry an umbrella or cancel a picnic based on weather reports. We look to the media for sports scores, stock market reports and details about entertainment events. Information we have learned from news broadcasts may affect our choice of a college or a major field of study. More importantly, we learn about candidates for public office, election results and the winner's effectiveness through media reports. Announcements about new industry and new jobs or, conversely, about plant closings and layoffs come to us through the media.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Nearly every American can recite these respected freedoms, but few understand their full implications. The authors of the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution wanted citizens to be able to speak freely about the government. Our forebears believed that if citizens were free to criticize the government for its failures, voters would be well-informed. The press would fulfill a role as "watchdog of the government."
The media today fulfill the role of watchdog of the government and also maintain surveillance over business, the social value system and all aspects of life in our society. In this respect, our system of government is no better than the quality of news the public gets.
An effective system of government requires that the public get quality news, but there's another part of the equation: the public must pay attention and become involved. For example, if local government repeatedly cuts the budget for schools, reporters may examine the effect of the budget cuts on education. If the school system tightens its operation and makes better use of less money, we expect to get that information from the media. If the budget cuts mean that the condition of the school buildings deteriorates and students are attempting to learn in classrooms with inadequate heat or crumbling ceilings, the news media hold the responsibility for finding this information and presenting it to the public. When the media play this "watchdog role effectively, voters have the information they need to exert influence and control for improving the situation either during public meetings or in the voting booth.
Media critics today point out that too much political reporting concentrates on who is winning and who is losing in the polls, rather than detailing the policies of potential leaders. When our information about candidates focuses on who is winning the contest, we might as well be watching a professional wrestling match. The entertainment value of a fight is fine, but we gain little important information. Although elected representatives in state legislatures, in Congress or in the White House have immense power, the voters have ultimate power and ultimate control in a democracy. While individuals don't directly make laws, establish business policy or make decisions about regulations in various branches of government, the citizenry ultimately decides at the ballot box who will have oversight and control of the country. To exercise this power responsibly, the public needs good information. Accurate information leads to good decisions.
Just as the public holds control in the voting booth and can guide the direction of government, citizens also establish guidelines for acceptable business practices through the democratic process. If prescription drug prices rise much faster than overall price trends, the public may demand that the government regulate the pharmaceutical industry. Empowered voters express their will based on the accurate information they get from media reports on pharmaceutical companies or other business operations. The watchdog role of the media extends to our national system of social values. If individual levels of incr and frustration reveal themselves in increasing incidents of road rage, people may begin to look for solutions to the problem. Campaigns and public service may appear advising people to show courtesy on the roads we share or to give way to angry drivers. Just as watchdogs alert their owners to unusual activity, the media alert citizens to important information. The interactions between government, media and public opinion are not simple. Media may, at times, lead public opinion. At other times, media may reflect changing public attitudes. But there is no doubt that presentation of information by media is part of our self-governance.
People watch news and read newspapers in search of factual information and, at times, to correct misinformation about a story. Without the credibility of offering accurate information, news makers have nothing. If a news organization loses its reputation for accuracy, it has nothing else to offer.
The Morning News, 3rd edition, coming next month! Watch for it.