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Posted: June 27, 2010 12:01 a.m.

A nose for news (and opinion)

We are flooded with news and what-appears-to-be news on a non-stop basis. The news consumer can spend hours a day between newspapers, TV, radio and online, viewing multiple websites that include wanna-be-news sites called blogs, or more accurately, opinion.

What is news? There are two types of news: need-to-know and want-to-know. Need-to-know news includes government budgets, health risks, environmental disasters, wars, auto recalls, etc. Want-to-know news includes Tiger Woods’ dalliances, who replaces Simon Cowell on American Idol, Greg Allman getting a liver transplant, etc. News is also fear-based: crime, rising taxes, layoffs, banks in distress, etc. Under crime, some news outlets...one Atlanta TV station in particular…dwell on crime that has a small ripple effect. A domestic argument that results in a shooting affects the immediate families and is not relevant to most news consumers. On the other hand, a shooting on a school bus raises community concerns as to the safety of our school kids.

Crucial for the news consumer is the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion. When an elected official makes a statement, it may be difficult to know whether it is fact or opinion, especially if partisanship (political party affiliation) is a factor in the issue at hand. This can be tricky. But the red flag should go up when watching TV news and the anchor asks the live reporter what he or she "thinks" or "what’s the mood?" The reporter’s function is to present the relevant facts. Producers needing to fill time will format Q&A between anchor and reporter. As soon as the reporter tells us what he/she "thinks," we’re out of the news business and into opinions. Asking the reporter about the mood of the crowd is like asking three people to define a miracle. Each will be different. The mood of the soccer crowd might be interpreted by one reporter as "boisterous" but by another as "angry" and a third "intoxicated." Who is right?

Another way in which a reporter’s opinion comes into play is in the use of adjectives. Listen carefully to what is said. "The police chief’s stern warning…" By whose definition was it stern? "The president’s thorough plan…" Says who? You’ve heard these. I have castigated reporters for using these terms. If there is a descriptive term it needs to be attributed. "The police chief said his stern warning should do the job." "Aides described the president’s plan as thorough."

If a source is not identified by name, he/she should be characterized. For instance, "someone close to the union negotiations…" Was this "someone" a member of the union or the company? That will color their information. If it’s a political issue, from what party is the unidentified source. Of course, if the person quoted or whose sound-bite is used clearly identifies who is speaking, take into consideration whom they represent and if their dog is in the hunt.

There was an NBC poll on the air Thursday. The last number quoted was President Obama’s job performance approval rating — 45 percent approved, 48 percent disapproved. In little tiny letters at the bottom of the graphic was "Margin of error 3.3." That means it could be 48 percent approve and 45 percent disapprove. What Brian Williams (or his writer) should have said is, "It’s a tie when you consider the margin of error of the poll." But how often in the poll-driven media are you made aware of the margin of error? Especially around election time? The larger the margin of error, the smaller the sampling. Three-point-three is a fairly large margin of error.

And finally, the talk shows. If you are watching Bill O’Reilly or Larry King or Rachel Maddow or Glen Beck or Chris Mathews or Greta Van Susteren, you are watching opinion, not news. If you are watching the ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN or FOX Sunday morning talk shows, they are a mix of fact and opinion, but they are not news programs. What is said may have some news value, but these are not news shows.

This column you are reading is opinion. It may be new(s) to you but it is opinion. Everything on this page is opinion, whether it’s a column, an editorial or a letter to the editor. The news is elsewhere on these pages.

A pet peeve of mine: CBS’s Laura Logan reporting on Afghanistan from Washington. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell is the Senior Political Reporter on MSNBC during the day. At night she is the chief foreign correspondent on NBC Nightly News reporting on Iraq from Washington. I don’t mean to be picking on NBC, but its Chief White House correspondent, Chuck Todd, is also Political Director. Does that mean that virtually everything coming out of the White House is political? (Some of you are probably shaking your heads in agreement.) This is just flat wrong.

Discerning news consumers make for a smarter citizenry. A smart citizenry makes for a better community and country.

Bob Furnad is a resident of Covington and the former president of CNN Headline News.

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