COMMENTARY: Follow-Ups

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Here's a question for you: who is the "press" the First Amendment talks about, and what is it supposed to be doing? Dr. Larry Burris, MTSU Professor of Journalism has the answer:

I don't mean network correspondents or a six-year-old who wants to claim she is a reporter deserving of First Amendment protection. Rather, let's take a different approach to the "press," and see what kind of job practitioners are doing.

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When the writers of the Constitution talked about the press, they were talking about an institution. And in an institution the participants are supposed to work together for a common good.

So why is it, when a reporter asks a question, and a government official makes a general statement about how many people are or are not doing something, or how some event is this or that size, why are there never follow-up questions to ask where the numbers are coming from.

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I heard an interview the other day, and an economist said there is indisputable evidence the world is heading for financial catastrophe. But the reporter, rather than asking a follow-up question about what the economist meant or what the evidence was, simply went on to an unrelated question.

How many press conferences have we seen where a reporter asks a question, the official answers in vague generalities, and then, well, nothing. Not one question asking for clarification.

We tell our beginning reporting students, in their first or second week of class, to go into an interview or press conference with a list of questions, but be prepared to deviate and ask a follow-up.

When we talk about what the press is supposed to be doing, reporters need to think in terms of teamwork.

Edward R. Murrow once said when a reporter is prevented from filing their story, they will be covered by their colleagues. We need to see that same kind of attitude today, and not let government officials get away with divide-and-conquer techniques that simply hide information from the public.

I'm Larry Burriss.

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