Everybody hates the media. I’ve worked in the news media enough that I kind of hate it, too. In fact, if you read the editorial pages, there’s a lot of self loathing going on. Why did we put the balloon boy on the front page and the top of the newscast? Was that really news? But if you took those columnists and moved them to an assignment desk, they’d probably be sending reporters to chase balloon boy, too. Some stories are irresistible, whether we want them to be or not.
So yes, the media is a piece of work. But my purpose today is to clear up a few misconceptions on how the media does and doesn’t work in three main areas:
- Objectivity and fairness
- What gets covered and what doesn’t
- And fact versus opinion
Objectivity is a biggie. The news media is supposed to be objective because that’s what the Founding Fathers intended, right? [buzzer sound] Wrong. The First Amendment doesn’t say anything about being fair, objective, or even accurate; it just says the government can’t stop you from saying what you want to say. The press at that time was openly partisan and full of propagandists and troublemakers.
The people who drafted the Constitution appreciated the press as a check on power because it had been a thorn in the side of the British. Thomas Jefferson once said that if he had to choose between newspapers and government, he’d choose newspapers. Once he was President, and some of the newspapers were reporting on his affairs with female slaves, he kind of changed his mind.
At any rate, the press back then didn’t even pretend to be objective and non-partisan. The ideal of journalistic objectivity didn’t become a major force until about the time of the Civil War and the telegraph. With the telegraph, we got the first wire services with reporters who would feed stories to newspapers around the country. The wire services had a business incentive to keep their reports relatively objective and non-partisan so they could run in Democratic papers, Republican papers, Northern papers, Southern papers, and so on. Individual newspapers could also make a little extra money by selling their stories to the wires.
Gradually, the idea spread that the news pages should be objective, and opinion should be reserved for the editorial page. That’s a good goal, to be able to separate fact from opinion.
The only problem is no one quite believes it’s true. Conservatives complain about the liberal media and lefties complain about the corporate media overlords. But never mind that. There really is no such thing as perfectly objective journalism because journalism is done by people, and people are not perfectly objective.
A reporter friend once told me he didn’t vote because he wanted to remain objective. I told him, “You’re crazy! You’re one of the most opinionated people I know!” You can ask a reporter to try to keep his biases in check in order to produce a relatively balanced report, but that doesn’t mean those biases go away. And there is always going to be room for those biases to come out when reporters and editors exercise judgment, which happens all the time. They have to decide what stories to cover, what quotes to use, which facts to feature near up top and which to put down at the end or leave out entirely.
I always laugh when someone complains about being quoted out of context – because it’s always true. A quote in context would be a full transcript of the speech or interview, and no one has time to read all that. So it’s the reporter’s job to take things out of context, to select and summarize. Of course, it’s also possible to put a quote in a completely different context. Suppose the question was do you love America, and you say yes, and when I write it up I substitute Al-Queda. That could be a problem.
But my point is the most frequent bias is selection bias. Editors decide which stories go on the front page, and TV producers decide which ones go at the top of the newscast. When I was at the Waterbury Republican-American, I worked on an investigative feature about how the tax burden of the average citizen had risen compared with the rate of inflation. I think the reporting was pretty fair, but a more liberal paper probably wouldn’t have chosen to do a big blowout package on that particular subject.
Some journalism that takes a definite point of view, and at least then you know where they’re coming from. The Nation magazine proudly advertises itself as offering that liberal media bias that you can’t find anywhere else. Bloggers, talk show hosts, and alternative newspaper writers sometimes argue that the so-called objective mainstream media is really just bland, cowardly, middle of the road, and boring.
Just because you offer equal time to both sides in a debate doesn’t necessarily you’re mean doing justice to the truth with a capital T. If a report quotes one scientist who believes in global warming and one who doesn’t, does that make it balanced? Do we give equal time to someone who believes the Earth is flat?
Where exactly is the border between fact, opinion, and interpretation? Is global warming a fact? Strictly speaking, the hard facts are a bunch of temperature readings and carbon dioxide measurements. But you would have to be a climate scientist to be able to sort through all the raw data and come to a conclusion. So reporters have to rely on experts to supply an interpretation, and the rest of us have to rely on the reporters. A good reporter might tell you that 8 out of 10 scientists interviewed generally agreed with the climate change theory, and one of the others was funded by ExxonMobil. That would give you some basis for deciding who to believe. But most reporters aren’t qualified to critique the science itself.
So if you’re suspicious of the news media, good for you. You ought to be suspicious of its objectivity, of what it covers and fails to cover, and of its facts. If you look at it critically, try to get your news from more than one source, and think for yourself a little bit, you’ve got a better chance of being well informed.
And maybe you’ll even notice when, every once in a while, the media does something right.