Understanding the three buckets: a conversation with Cynthia Tucker

By Emma Oxnevad

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Cynthia Tucker wants to set the record straight on commentary. While journalism has traditionally been distinguished by the “three buckets”— reporting, analysis, and opinion writing— she worries that the lines between the three are beginning to blur.

Tucker said that the rise of digital journalism has muddied the waters between fact-based reporting and commentary, which relies on a writer’s ability to convey an argument.

“In the heyday of print, it was easy to see the distinctions visually. because the opinion section of the newspaper was clearly labeled,” she said. “…But now that we have moved to the digital age, even with the labeling, it’s really harder to see. Literally, it is harder to tell what you are reading, so those who are not already schooled in the distinctions might be easily confused.”

She also attributes this lack of understanding to the mislabeling of cable news programs, which often impart subjective opinions, as objective reporting.

“MSNBC, CNN has a lot more commentary than it used to,” she said. “And Fox labels itself as, what, ‘fair and balanced?’ But it is, of course, unfair and unbalanced. And it’s not news.”

Tucker highlighted Fox—which is well known for its conservative programming— as being particularly harmful, describing the level of influence it can have on otherwise uninformed viewers.

“If you grew up watching Fox News if you’re 20 years old and you come from a conservative household, or you believe that is the news, you have no idea of what straight news sounds like,” she said.

Tucker said that this lack of media literacy concerning the proverbial three buckets was brought to her attention, in part, by her work as the Journalist-in-Residence at the University of South Alabama.

Tucker often assigns her students to acquire a digital news subscription and select a reported news piece to discuss in class; she said that oftentimes, her students will select a column rather than the assigned “straight news” format.

“My first year teaching at the University of South Alabama I didn’t even understand that my students didn’t know the distinction,” she said. “I didn’t understand that I needed to go back and teach them what an opinion piece was. So now I spend a lot more time on that.”

In an attempt to combat this lack of media literacy, Tucker said she repeatedly emphasizes the importance of consuming a variety of publications to her students.

“I tell them over and over again, listen to NPR, read the New York Times, the front page of the New York Times, the Washington Post,” she said. “Listen to the evening news on the big three legacy networks ABC NBC [and] CBS. I emphasize that over and over.”

When discussing the future of commentary, Tucker stated that she believes the practice is going “back to the future,” in reference to news being used as a partisan vehicle, as they were in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

“If you look at what is happening today. You see more and more news entities that are full of commentary dedicated to a particular point of view, even those I respect,” she said. “…So, I think we’re headed back to a time when commentary, or at least reporting, that supports a particular ideology will be most of what we get. I regret that. Because I’m not sure that’s what we need.”



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