In Defense of the Mainstream Media

 

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One of the things that I learned about journalism when I started is that the media is a very different entity than what the public makes it out to be. I have learned quite a lot in the past two semesters.

I was spurred to make this post due to seeing a post on the Blogging Meetup by fellow blogger Steven Sawyer. Now, internet drama is the domain of my friend Maggie but I suppose she’s rubbed off on me in some ways. But unlike her Facebook posts that are designed to stir the pot, I am going to take a moment to address something that is actually important to me.

Sawyer’s post is an encapsulation of common canards about the mainstream media, things that probably every journalist is sick of hearing but still keep getting talked about. These memetic nuggets get passed along and things don’t get picked up and unpacked, probably because journalists are too busy doing their jobs to really address. I do not take kindly to his blanket statement “Many reporters I’ve seen and know present themselves as egomaniacal, intellectual elitists. (I call them snobs).”, nor do I take any solace in the fact that he lumps in all news reporting into unfounded rumor and gossip and clearly doesn’t how journalism works, but I am going to do my best to focus on dispensing relevant information instead of defending my character. Those who know me can speak to my character directly and would dispute such a characterization.

A Problem With Many Voices

Moving along, now. Let’s start with the facts. The most recent article that I found in the Atlantic, written by Derek Thompson, points to a Gallup poll that shows a breakdown of American’s distrust in the media.

All in all, I agree with Thompson’s assessment. I’d also like to point out that the culpability of the media that he presents is not what the public considers the issue. He speaks to the nature of political reporting being treated like a game of tug-o-war, without regard to how these issues may impact the lives of real people. This is not a criticism that I have seen raised by anyone outside the media.

What Thompson points out is an observation I myself have made. Thanks to the internet, you can find a media source for whatever political viewpoint you hold. It can be as fringe as you want, you will still find it.

What the article doesn’t mention, likely for the sake of focus and time is another observation I’ve made. Throughout my life, I’ve found that people of all political stripes believe that the mainstream media is biased against their viewpoint specifically.

Turns out, I was not the first to make this observation. In fact, it’s a psychological phenomenon known as “the hostile media effect”. This has been scientifically tested, with one of the first examples being when a selection of participants was asked to rate a report on the Israel and Palestine conflict. They consisted of both people who were supportive and critical of Israel.

They saw the same footage, but both sides reported that the reporting was biased against them. In other words, when the bias comes from you everything else appears to be biased.

Sawyer’s post reeks of this phenomenon. The article that is presented as evidence for his claim likely struck a chord because it did not present Trump nor the people he surrounded himself with in a particularly positive light.

What He Said

The public believes that “objective reporting” means that both sides must be presented with equal weight. This is not true, but for a long time has been treated as if it were true. This creates something known as “he said, she said journalism”.

Let’s suppose I was writing an article about climate change. I decide to interview a climatologist who gives me information about its impact. I then approach (or more likely am approached by) an organization that purports that climate change is either not real, not caused by human activity, or any number of positionings that cast doubt on the climatologist’s claims.

In researching this organization, I discover that it is heavily funded by oil and gas companies that have a vested interest in the subject. This is a fairly common practice known as “astroturfing”, in which a corporation sets up a front group to advance its interests. This is because getting a third party to speak about an interest related to it is taken more seriously than when the corporation speaks about an issue directly.In terms of objectivity, I can safely render the claims that are purported as invalid. Some journalists will include it and point out the conflict of interest.

In terms of objectivity, I can safely render the claims that are purported as invalid. Some journalists will include it and point out the conflict of interest. I do not have data to support how effective each method is, but I also do see a shockingly large amount of press that is taken from libertarian think tanks like the Reason Foundation and CATO Institute which have a significant amount of wealth and power backing them provided with no context, no way for the viewer to frame this.

Indeed, most of the internal discussion from the media about how they handled the 2016 election was precisely due to this lack of contextualization. Many have lamented that they merely put Donald Trump’s speeches on without editing of any sort.

This move is welcomed by people who believe that editing is intrinsically deceptive. But now the viewer has nothing to compare this to. People clearly aren’t interested in doing the legwork themselves, as the spread of post-election misinformation shows. Then again, one of Trump’s strengths is that he got around people’s critical capacities by appealing to sub-rational emotions and fears.

Who You Rub Elbows With

Sawyer has vocalized that he does not trust mainstream media. What he doesn’t know is that this position makes him bedfellows with sources that do not have the same mechanisms for accountability. He has to get his information from somewhere. Otherwise, he has no anchor for decision making that goes beyond his direct experience, which would significantly hinder him.

Journalists have people to answer to. They are held to account by the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. They have editors to answer to, people in the newsroom that can fire them if they screw up. When Sabrina Erdely published the infamous “A Rape on Campus” article in Rolling Stone that later turned out to be completely fabricated, she was fired and at this point must find work outside of journalism because everyone from Poynter to Columbia Journalism  Alex Jones, Breitbart, The Other 98%, and Liberal America do not have those mechanisms in place. They can and do say whatever they want and go completely unchecked. I consult the SPJ Code of Ethics every time I write an article that is not clearly marked by “Opinion/Editorial” or its subcategories. This is voluntary, no one is holding me to task for it but I do it because I care about my job and my readers.

I also find Sawyer’s claim that journalists are interested only in profits rather than information curious. There is a discussion to be had about the influence of advertisers over what gets published as well as one about media consolidation. But those discussions are far more complex than he is making them about to be and he is also misreading the optics of the situation.

Why do I say that? Because I can tell you that alternative news sites as just as concerned with making a buck as their mainstream counterparts. I’d also like to reiterate that they are under no obligation to uphold journalistic standards because there’s no one at the top telling them to do that. So if a liberal site wants to promote anti-GMO nonsense or a conservative site wants to talk about how climate change is a myth, they absolutely can do it. They are under no obligation to correct themselves or update what they have written.

I do not believe I can convince Sawyer. But I also saw the comments on his post uncritically accept what he is saying. This implicates some people that I genuinely respect, but perhaps they would be more open to what I am saying than he is.

Invariably, this will be misconstrued as “mainstream media is flawless and journalists can do no wrong.” That is not what I am saying by any stretch of the imagination, as I am acutely aware of the issues present within the field. I also know that journalists are human, and are prone to mistakes. But you’re going to have a better shot with the Washington Post than you are with all the sites I’ve mentioned before.

But clearly, Sawyer’s post is not based on careful analysis or an understanding of the history of journalism. It is based on preconceived notions that probably exist outside of his awareness. Otherwise he would not be making those arguments.

I know I have been extraordinarily critical towards Sawyer’s position, but I also want to make it abundantly clear that I do not believe he is a bad person because of this. All that I believe is that he has bought into some bad ideas, like many people (including myself) have in my life.

He will likely find any number of reasons to discount what I am saying. The easiest one is to say that I am just part of the media machine and henceforth covering for my peers. This conflicts with the SPJ Code of Ethics that stipulates that journalists hold their peers to account. He could attack my political viewpoints, which given my previous coverage and opinion pieces of Donald Trump would be described with some accuracy as “liberal”. My political viewpoints have changed over time, in ways that I could have never anticipated. They likely will change once more. He could attack my atheism should he deem it relevant. There are nastier strings to be pulled as well.

Marrying An Idea

When one stakes so much of themselves onto an idea, any challenge to it is interpreted as a threat to the person themselves. This is why I make sure that whatever I believe can be backed up the best I can through evidence and solid argumentation and should I be swayed, the best approach is to drop that old idea. It has saved my life before and I speak without exaggeration.

What can my readers do to ensure that they are getting accurate information? Well, the best way to do it is to drop the idea that you can get your information from a single source. Also, add Snopes to your bookmarks or join the Facebook group.

But perhaps the best tool of all is careful and thoughtful self-reflection, challenging your own blind spots. Ask “Do I believe it because it’s true or because I want to believe it’s true?”

Falsehoods wear beautiful clothes. They are constructed to appeal to things we want to believe. Part of the reality of journalism means that things are not as sexy as we want them to be. Many hours of fact-checking Hillary Clinton’s email scandal revealed this to me.

My hope is that all of is that, out of all of this, we can start having a real dialogue regarding how we interact with media. To me, I have seen that even with the abundance of information we have today, we still have many issues handling that information. In the upcoming years, this need for information will only grow stronger. We must, as a society, make a decision to figure out how to become more media literate. Otherwise we will be stuck in the era of echo chamber without the guiding light of truth to lead us out.

5 thoughts on “In Defense of the Mainstream Media

  1. Dylan, I am one of those people that absolutely hates some media and knows them to be not exactly aboveboard with their reporting. I also know without a shadow of a doubt that there are mainstream media that are honest and accurate in their reporting. I told Steven of an incident that occurred in 2008 and that it completely changed my idea of a certain newsgroup being honest. I know they were not in that instance. Do i think everyone is tarred by the same brush? heck no. I get news from the NY Times, the Washington Post, the Atlanta journal as well as online sources. out of all of them though Al Jazeera is my favorite. I fact check articles before I mouth off (usually) through various methods. snopes being my first go to source.
    I agree with Steven on a few points. There are some media sources that are blatant in their biases. They identify themselves as right or left wing..some even go so far as to identify as alt-right. Those are biased. They have an agenda, and whether it is more money or more power or just making life easier for themselves I haven’t a clue. I do know that journalists don’t make a heck of a lot of money.
    Steven was an editor so he does have an emotional stake in it all. He does have experience of years in the news biz……he also has biases (just like all the rest of humanity).
    Thanks for such a thought provoking article. and thanks for being one of the “good guys”..you know…the ones with ethics!

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