Fake news is old news, but a more subversive type of reporting deserves greater reproach: straight-up lazy journalism.
In excuse for CNN’s misguided handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the network’s President Jeff Zucker this week defended lazy reporting: “We are not investigators. We are journalists, and our role is to report the facts as we know them, which is exactly what we did,” he told The New York Times.
If anything, “reporting facts as we know them” is careless. Lazy journalists trust their sources, follow popular narratives, and accept facts at face value without doubting themselves or their data. Good reporters question even the facts.
CNN isn’t alone in lazy journalism (nor is it wholly lazy; it actually has a team devoted to investigation, making Zucker’s comment more of a shame). Every journalist faces temptations to slack off, and many — of all political, or apolitical, stripes — give in. Deadlines approach too fast for fact-checking. Sleep sounds better than a rewrite or another phone call. A story that fits the narrative sells better. Successful journalists, glamorized in this age of Twitter and television, easily grow overconfident.
And people eat it up.
Thus, we have not only an overhyped Mueller report, but also the recent one-sided coverage of Covington Catholic High School, the 2006 slinging of Duke lacrosse players’ reputations, and the 2014 Rolling Stone debacle at the University of Virginia. And even less egregious examples: hastily posted online articles tagged with corrective editor’s notes, and aggregated news stories that don’t contribute information but merely march along with the pack.
In my own reporting, I’ve come to rue the articles I submitted too soon, prone to misspelled names or other factual errors that could have been fixed with just a little more effort.
It’s a shame that lazy journalism takes flight because it undermines the hard-earned, thoughtful reporting that journalists (even mainstream media journalists!) produce. The most celebrated moments of journalism have involved true investigations — and sometimes, they’ve tipped off law enforcement, not the other way around.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation of the Watergate scandal took months of digging — and rendezvous in a parking garage — that prompted government investigations and eventually led to Nixon’s resignation. The Boston Globe’s uncovering of the extent of the Catholic Church’s clergy sex abuse likewise sparked wider investigation and legal justice. Recently, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News constructed a database of Southern Baptist Church leaders convicted of sexual assault.
Far from stealthy sleuthing adventures, most investigative reporting involves Sisyphean tasks at an office desk: culling through data, reading legalese-ridden reports, filing Freedom of Information Act forms to little avail. None of these are glamorous; none get posted online in an afternoon. But in journalism, as in most things, glory doesn’t come without hard work, care, and probably working around a government roadblock.
To bolster media credibility, thorough and thoughtful journalism — the questioning, reasoning, data-driven kind — deserves more encouragement from editors and appreciation from consumers (whose clicks do play a role in the health of the media). Good journalism doesn’t have to be Hollywood-worthy: Even a basic news report should involve “investigative” aspects of fact checking and source verifying.
Lazy journalism doesn’t just risk the journalist’s reputation; it puts sources and subjects and consumers in harm’s way as well. Journalists can take pride in their role of truth-digging and storytelling only insofar as they work hard to do it right.