I am posting the introduction and first two chapters of my new book over the next few weeks.
The book is available for pre-order at Amazon. I am also giving away a limited number of advance, review copies to those willing to review it on Amazon, or on news sites or blogs, prior to the release date of Jan. 3, 2012. Just email me for details.
CHAPTER 1, PART 4
Now available at Amazon in paperback, Smashwords and for the Kindle. Get a free review copy by emailing me.
Read Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
The American Left’s favorite punching bag, Sarah Palin, should be thanked for one thing: her ability to draw out the nastiness of her media critics. Palin’s shortcomings, which are many, help elicit inherent problems with news media reporting that might otherwise go unnoticed.
There’s something about Palin that emboldens news media to seemingly go out of the way to misconstrue news about her or to simply create a kind of context that might not otherwise exist. Palin makes a good target, one that media quickly and somewhat cavalierly defend their actions against, after going on the attack.
This is not necessarily referring to left- or right-wing bias in the media, however. Even though a study by UCLA political scientist Tim Groseclose, published in the December 2005 issue of Quarterly Journal of Economics, found that major news media are moderate but have a measurable lean to the left, the bias against Palin and many other public figures is, by most appearances, inherent in the news journalism business.
It is, in fact, business-as-usual news reporting that is flawed and is too often seemingly incapable of portraying a complete context for what happens in real life. It is not just partisan news that is problematic: the news business in general that is fraught with the potential to drive innuendo and encourage misinformation – a point made repeatedly in Lanny Davis’ book Truth to Tell, about when he worked under then President Bill Clinton and witnessed stories driven by mere allegation even when facts were absent.
Palin and many public figures know this too well. What is most striking about her appearance on the cover of Newsweek magazine in 2009 – in which she is portrayed in a runner’s outfit with the bold question: “How do you solve a problem like Sarah Palin?” – is the defense by Newsweek to justify context creation, despite the potential illegalities of reproducing that particular photo in the first place. The photograph was originally shot for Runner’s World magazine and used by Newsweek without permission, according to a statement posted by Runner’s World on its website.
Newsweek insisted that its choice of cover photographs was appropriate. Newsweek’s then Editor Jon Meacham, after coming under fire for the use of the photograph, said: “We chose the most interesting image available to us to illustrate the theme of the cover, which is what we always try to do.”
Which is why what constitutes news is often deceptive. It routinely (re)defines context and frames agendas for us rather than taking a stricter stance of merely reporting information. It is an attitude in which reporters deem – influenced likely by their training in journalism schools – that they are qualified to shape context.
Meacham, like many journalists, is cavalier as an interpreter of information. The processes of reporting and interpreting news put reporters in the position of making decisions about news for the presumed benefit of their audiences.
David Barker, staff writer for the State News, a newspaper published by the students of Michigan State University, explained the reporting process this way: “As reporters, we aren’t simply people who regurgitate facts. We gather information and test its veracity. Our job requires that we interpret and shape information – contextually and factually – for the reader.
“Our job is to tell stories, to make facts relevant, but never to skew them.”
But the process of interpreting and shaping information is precisely what begins the progression of skewing information, deliberately or otherwise. Barker basically admitted to this. His lead sentence in a column from 2009, stated: “This just in: News is not objective.” But he attempted to soften the reporting reality by denying that interpretation has the potential to skew. He wrote:
“We have a code of ethics because our jobs require us to decide not only what is essential, but pertinent.
“After that, it’s up to the reader to decide.”
Inserting oneself into the position of deciding what’s relevant is the first place where bias initially occurs. Scientists know this, which is why double-blind studies are so critical to research; indeed, human health and safety are dependent upon blind studies for medicine so that lives will be saved. Double-blind studies are when even the researchers are unaware of which group is getting an actual treatment versus a fake treatment, or a placebo. By taking themselves out of the equation, or blinding themselves to variables of what they are researching, scientists reduce their potential for bias.
Reporters on the other hand are critical components in the filtering process, such as deciding what is newsworthy. Barker, at least, was refreshingly honest about his role as a journalist.
His colleagues, however, seem too often to lack this characteristic.
Such is the case with the process of attempting to correct news, let alone context. Media personnel have an essentially black-and-white moral obligation of speaking for the masses with a frequent disregard for their own accountability in fulfilling the role of watchdog. This is most evident when they commit errors in their reporting.
It may be possible to get factual mistakes corrected in the news, usually a day or two later. The correction, however, is given with far less prominence than the original news story. Even then, the corrections are sometimes questionable, as the site Regret the Error (www.regrettheerror.com), which documents news errors and corrections, frequently points out.
What happens when context is incorrect or distorted? Not much. Reporters and editors are typically quick to respond defensively when called onto the carpet for miscontextualizations, as the Newsweek / Palin example shows.
Read Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6