Facts and media bias

Disclaimer: I’m not speaking on behalf of any current or former employers.

One my Facebook friends posted a link to this juxtaposition of political cartoons re: media bias, which brought up an old pet peeve of mine: the notion that media can or should be some sort of completely neutral space in which all sides of a given issue are given equal time, as if all have equal credibility.

I can’t begin to describe how wrong this idea is. A journalist worth calling herself that has exactly one duty: to report the facts of a story. If the facts favor one side or another of a given issue, then so be it. That’s what’s supposed to get reported. You don’t assume or report facts that are not in evidence, but you also don’t downplay facts just because they make someone look bad or might get in the way of someone making a buck. We are the people who are supposed to point out the naked emperors, not the ones charged with keeping up the pretense of our emperors’ full wardrobe. We serve citizens, not industry or government or our sources, and that requires that we give citizens the best, most factual information possible.

The rub, of course, is this: what is a fact, and who decides whether a given bit of information is factual? That’s where the true–and lost–art of journalism comes in.

Sadly, many people now calling themselves journalists or reporters don’t have much training in actual journalism at all, and often don’t even have the benefit of broad general knowledge. They no longer have the savvy to determine what is and isn’t good information, and who or what can best provide it. They honestly don’t know the difference, for instance, between a study by the Family Research Institute and one by Harvard, or why a study on climate change commissioned by Exxon might not be reliable. I’ve encountered reporters who don’t even know what the scientific method is, much less why it’s a critical factor in all reporting. Making matters worse, there’s now a large and vocal enough anti-education contingent (as well as a smattering of post-modernists and existentialists) to make people question whether there is such a thing as fact at all, and not just opinions which all have equal merit.

The net result of this lack of education is that reporters are no longer doing a top-level data sort for their stories, and instead just indiscriminately info dump, expecting audiences to figure out who in the story knows what they’re talking about and who is full of crap. Hell, Fox News actually prides themselves on this, with their “We Report. You Decide.” nonsense. It’s the journalistic equivalent of a doctor handing over an anatomy book and a few issues of Prevention magazine, and telling a patient to diagnose herself. Laypeople who like to think they know everything might be flattered by that kind of trust, but next thing you know, someone’s attempting an appendectomy with a grapefruit spoon. That kind of thing is messy enough as it is, but when it comes to crucial information like current events and political news, the bad decisions made as a result of that kind of carelessness can go well beyond some idiot bleeding to death on his kitchen floor. Think, for instance, of the countless lives lost because people believed Iraq was building WMDs. Good journalism could have prevented that whole war. Bad journalism actually helped start it.

Luckily, there are a few bastions of true journalism still out there, and many J schools are slowly working their way back from training pretty mynah birds to training people to actually know what they’re doing. However, I’m afraid it may be too late. Crap information and the people who have an interest in selling it to an ignorant public have very nearly drowned out any real, reliable news, and the public now no longer trusts mainstream media to give them the right info. Everyone on Twitter thinks they’re a reporter, now, and believes that if their Aunt Janie tells them something, then it must surely be true, and therefore worthy of passing on, and we’re left with the hard-working folks at Snopes trying to clean up the resulting mess (and fielding their own accusations of bias.)

What’s even scarier is that there’s also a cadre of people insisting that this democratization of news is a good thing. They think that because some people can string a few words together or shoot a bit of video, that qualifies them as a reporter whose stories can be trusted. People who would never consider trusting their car to an uncertified mechanic, or their health to a guy they met at a bar, are trusting that uneducated total strangers on the intarweebs are just as good a source of information as someone with a journalism degree and 20 years of experience. Indeed, education itself is no longer seen as making a person more qualified to speak on a given subject than some random dude chugging beer at a monster truck rally. (Said random dude may well be an expert on something, but unless he whips out his credentials, it’s probably best not to trust his advice on which stocks to buy or whether Americans need a passport to get into Canada.)

Accurate information is incredibly important to our ability to make critical decisions. When we’re not getting it, everything starts to break down. Trusting the conveyance of that information to amateurs and mindless talking heads in the interest of “balance” does none of us any good, save the misanthropes and sociopaths who believe that an uneducated populace is easier to swindle.

There’s a reason journalism is called the fourth estate. It is the primary means by which the public gets the data they need to be informed voters and citizens. If we shirk our duty to report facts merely because we’re afraid to be accused of bias, we have no right to call ourselves journalists.

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About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Journalism, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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