Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Fair and Balanced Reporting?

Amoral, Misleading, and Uninformative

The Problem

I've long thought the self-important Fourth Estate has a serious misunderstanding of its mission. Neutered by false charges of Liberal Bias, the Truth Tellers have become the Debate Moderators. The goal of fair and balanced reporting is so amoral, misleading, and uninformative that it is no surprise to me that Fox News tried to trademark it.

If policy makers tell us we can't afford (for economic reasons) to clean up the mercury spewing out of coal-burning power plants or to slow down the rate of global warming, that's a newsworthy quote to stimulate public debate.

But when the news media dutifully repeat Bush Administration's prevarications about the role lobbyists played in rewriting scientific EPA findings to justify eviscerating the Clean Air Mercury Rule, or when they give airtime to a few industry-funded scientists to "balance" the less sexy but very real consensus of real scientists in 928 peer-reviewed journals that say we're destroying the planet, it's time for a news revolution.

The Solution

Such a revolution is already underway. Blogs and Wikipedia have been dismissed by presumably well-intentioned journalists who fear that misinformation that may go unvetted (and possibly their own status as gatekeeper as well?). This view implies that news providers see their calling primarily as that of spoon-feeding a witless and undercurious population of sheep with no sense of taste. The second part of this view is sadly all too often true. The first part, the role of the news media, is dangerously false.

In fact, this blog (and all blogs) have a higher calling than that. The purpose of blogging is not vanity or exhibitionism, nor to provide easy answers, but rather to democratize the pursuit of the scientific method (from wikipedia.org):

  1. Define the question
  2. Gather information and resources
  3. Form hypothesis
  4. Perform experiment and collect data
  5. Analyze data
  6. Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypotheses
  7. Publish results

All news items should contain an objective review of the facts, a clearly disclosed point of view, and a suggestion for the reader on what to do with the data. Facts devoid of context are easily manipulated, misunderstood, or ignored.

There should also be references to help the lazy reader make up his or her own mind, not just accept hearsay. A blog without references is worthless and should be rejected as slander if false, plagiarism if true. I have tried to follow my own advice and believe that this same standard should be applied to all forms of journalism.

You Decide

To practice what I preach, I now direct you to two excellent sources below. If you have not visited them both, do not bother to post a reply.

Does Iraq need more debate?

The most articulate exposition of the above point I have ever read, an Op-Ed piece by Martin Kaplan published in today's (19 Dec 2006) Los Angeles Times, it is a call to arms and this blog is my small part in taking up the fight.


Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School, where he directs the Norman Lear Center (learcenter.org), December 19, 2006.


"We've had plenty of shouting matches on the war; what we need are better leaders and more capable media."


"Maybe what we really need are leaders with more character, followers with more discrimination, deciders who hear as well as listen and media that know the difference between the public interest and what the public is interested in."

Balance vs. Bias in Journalism


National Public Radio, Talk of the Nation, April 17, 2006


  • Does the ideal of balance distort the news?
  • What if there are more than two sides to the story — or the sides aren't equal?
  • And how is a reader supposed to wade through all the 'he said, she said?'

Answers by:


Unknown said...

I'll bet when Martin Kaplan wrote "deciders who hear as well as listen", he was referring to the Great Decider himself, George W. Bush.

For those who prefer their political commentary in musical form, check out Richard Cummings' song lyrics.

bjkeefe said...

This is not a comment.

I can't comment because I haven't fully visited both links. It's too late to listen to a web radio debate right now.

But Kaplan's column was soooo good, I just had to add my props.

Here's my favorite part:

"Perhaps it's because the mainstream media are too timid to declare the difference between right and wrong. Imagine if journalism consisted of more than a collage of conflicting talking points. Imagine the difference it would make if more brand-name reporters broke from the bizarre straitjacket of "balance," which equates fairness with putting all disputants on equal epistemological footing, no matter how deceitful or moronic they may be.

There's a market for news that weighs counterclaims and assesses truth value. It just hasn't kept up with demand. No wonder Jon Stewart has such a loyal audience: He has a point of view, and it's rooted in the reality-based — not the ideology-based — world."

bjkeefe said...

Okay, I just listened to that NPR show that you linked to.

First impression: I was more in agreement with Jeff Jarvis than Jeffrey Dvorkin. I'm not saying Dvorkin was completely wrong about anything; in fact, I agreed with him far more often than not. But Jarvis had more of an "open source" attitude about reporting, and I liked that. I was with Dvorkin when he argued against the need or even the goodness of absolute full disclosure, but when he started trying to compare a reporter's desire for privacy with "that's why we have/there's a reason we have a secret ballot," he went too far.

The CJR guy I remember as sounding intelligent in his opening spot, but he quickly got relegated to a listening role. There was too much to discuss for three intelligent guests and a host who clearly had some chops and opinions herself, especially in, what, forty minutes? The call-ins, station breaks, etc., also distracted. I deserve some blame for being unable to filter all of those out, but nonetheless, I felt at the end of the show that the subject had merely been touched on. It wasn't superficial, it just wasn't nearly extensive enough. Several of the threads launched during the discussion merited entire shows of their own.

The show does serve as a good starting point, especially for those new to thinking about the concept of objectivity in journalism. All of the panelists agreed that true objectivity is impossible to achieve, and that the realistic goals were more about honesty and intelligence. (In other words, the pinkos of NPR agree with your opening paragraph, Dan.) So, the show offers at least one important lesson.

I think the global warming he-said/she-said problem is waning in much of the MSM. Thank goodness. But GW (hey, aren't those the president's initials?!) still serves as a good example of how the fetish for balance hurts the goal of informing the public.

The larger problem is this, as I see it: While it's good for news sources to admit that true objectivity is impossible, too many outlets then run with that ball and go too far. The right wing started this, at least in well-funded operations (Washington Times, Fox News, talk radio, countless think tanks and journals, etc.), and I have come to believe that the old lefty stereotype of saying "hmmm, you may have a point" is one we needed to work to dump. Sometimes, fire must be used to fight fire. Unfortunately, when the left does the only thing left (heh) -- taking a more aggressive stance -- and this is added to the explosion in the number of available channels for information, most people tend to gravitate to a single source that they most agree with. This calcifies everyone's positions, and more and more issues get treated as only binary.

The real solution would be to have everyone get their news and opinion from a variety of sources. At minimum, at least a couple of newspapers, or a couple of radio or TV stations. More would be better. Of course, that ain't gonna happen. People are too busy with everything else they do to budget time to becoming better informed.

(I have been working on trying to take in more conservative points of view. The problem is, every time I think I've found one who can write without sounding like a talking-point parrot, the rest of the right seems to expel him or her from the camp. We should start and maintain a list of eloquent spokespeople, Dan, who can clearly be put into various ideological slots. "Hard to put in a slot" would be a valid slot. This list would be good starting starting point for the self-enlightenment of the us all, don't you think?)

I'm sure every generation thinks that it's the only one with the hard problems, and that all of the easy ones have already been solved. But I think we're in a really tough spot now because no one will concede a gray area any more. The right never will, and the left no longer can. But there is no way we're going to figure out how to solve global warming, the clash of fundamentalist-driven religious movements, overpopulation, the shortage of resources, etc., etc., if everyone insists "it's my way or the highway." Anyone who tries to find a compromise position, take a middle road, or even just take some steps to learn about a different point of view becomes a target for pot shots from both extremes. Anyone who gets some experience, grows, learns, and evolves a new way of looking at something is immediately branded: "he's a flip-flopper!"

I dunno. I'm working my way into despair here. Probably better end it.

I will say that the blogosphere and the thousands of other news and opinion channels available are ultimately a good thing. For example, back to global warming: Somehow, we've FINALLY managed to make it clear to the Joe Six-Packs of the world that GW is real, that humans probably have much to do with its causes, and that we need to start doing a lot, now. I think that we as a citizenry are a little too immature to be able to handle the sudden increase in choices, but I hope we'll grow up. I believe we will, ultimately. It's just frustrating how long it takes to get there.

P.S. I wonder what Steve Church has to say about global warming, these days.

Anonymous said...

Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is a really well written article.
I'll be sure too bookmark itt and return to read more of your useful information. Thanks for
the post. I'll certainly return.