Thursday, July 6, 2006

Fair and Balanced? Could We Have Accurate News?

Jeffy sez -

I read an interesting commentary today by columnist Lawrence Lessig in Wired magazine. He was touting Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth", and mentioned that in addition to the main subject, Al brings some other inconvenient truths to light. Here is part of what Lessig wrote:

About halfway through, Gore cites two studies to explain why so many people remain so skeptical about global warming. The first looked at a random sample of almost 1,000 abstracts on climate change in peer-reviewed scientific journals from 1993 to 2003 and found that exactly zero doubted "that we're causing global warming." The second surveyed a random sample of more than 600 articles about global warming in popular media between 1988 and 2002 and discovered that 53 percent questioned "that we're causing global warming."

Good journalism likes two sides to every story. Lazy journalism fails to distinguish between objective sources and interested parties - and this issue has interested parties aplenty, from industry-funded think tanks to hired PR firms, feeding the press the disinformation it needs to make the story sound balanced. This is the media's own inconvenient truth - that the institution charged with reporting the facts is so easily manipulated by those whose "salary depends upon [our] not understanding" the facts (to reuse Gore's favorite Upton Sinclair quote). The result is the perfect storm for obfuscation. You can't buy the story outright, but you can twist it enough that the truth is no longer recognizable.
We see this sort of thing from all manner of news sources - there appears to be a desire for the reporter not to 'take sides' and so we get both the actual realistic truth about a topic as well as some dissenter's version of reality to 'balance' things. The other prime example of this is the evolution versus intelligent design battle.

There is no debate about this in the scientific community, yet the folks who wish to promote intelligent design have fabricated a controversy - to the point that they are now suggesting that schools at least "teach the controversy" and present the various competing 'theories'. The press then covers this as if there were scientists on both sides of the issue - they get quotes from someone who endorses evolution and quotes from someone who does not and pass it off as balanced journalism.

One has to assume that this is par for the course - just because a reputable news source presents two opposing arguments on seemingly equal terms there is no reason to believe that they are even in the same ballpark as each other, but in most cases we are in no position to judge. We rely on journalists to inform us, but they let us down terribly.


wunelle said...

An excellent assessment of something that bugs the shit out of me. I have pointed out bits and pieces of things over the past year, but I don't know that I've made my way to the bottom of the issue.

I think we are now--thanks in part to television--a culture unable to distinguish between news and entertainment. I think our current take on news coverage is a child of this new reality, and our sense of what deserves coverage is at least in part determined by what "plays well" in this he said / she said format.

And I think THIS phenomenon then provides the fertile soil for evangelical extremism and a kind of defiant conservatism to gain the floor to a far greater degree than either their numbers or the validity of their arguments warrant. This plays well in this tabloid journalism world. The middle is now the out-of-control Left, which the new Right, posing itself as the Center, is attempting to foil. There's no shortage of stories that pit the world against these besieged folks. But this is all, to my mind, a manufactured conflict.

(I'm glad SOMEONE is keeping this blog alive! Actually, it just seems like there is less time during the summer. I'm kinda thinking that blogging is maybe a winter activity for me. So I'm glad to have something to read!)

Jeffy said...

I don't think I would mind it so much if it was entirely a case of 'Infotainment' presenting slanted stories, or the predictable Left vs. Right debates; as these cases are pretty easily seen for what they are. What really gets to me is the cases like the global warming example where respectable news organizations try to fairly present both sides of an issue where there is only one side. There are not two sides to the global warming debate - the Earth is getting warmer at an increasingly rapid rate and our own habits contribute to this. Period. Any other opinion is just rubbish at this point, yet we keep hearing in the popular press that there is still debate on the topic.

I have read several articles in scientific journals about this situation and what the scientific community can do about it. Scientists and the scientific press struggle constantly with how they might be able to present information in a way that doesn't get misunderstood and mis-reported by the popular press. Scientists want to be able to debate amoungt themselves things like how best to measure certain effects or how much they really matter without giving the idea that they aren't generally in agreement on all the major points.

Joshua said...

I think we have used this space to talk about this before, and I think I have probably said all of this then, but I will repeat it, int he hopes something new might present itself.

I would like to say that it is good they present the false side of an already determined and examined topic. Such "debate" can only point out how concrete that argument is, and help people see the other side for what it is: a feeble attempt to generate controversy and keep bad ideas in the public's eye.

But I am fast forming the opinion that my fellow man, en masse, cannot see the difference between the above and an intelectual debate. What keeps me awake at night, in a dry sweat, is the fact that most the people I know get al their "facts" from ONE of the major news sources and, without even watching the others, assume they have picked the right one.

All this means the common answer, and the one I have so long carried as the correct answer, is about as good (as bad) as anything we already have. Publicly owned airwaves, and hence public media, would just mean more of the same, without regulation. Look to the blog world for a great example. Never have I seen more bias, hearsay, and flat out lying in the name of a cause than I do daily in the amateur ranks of the "news blogs" Yet these spaces are largely thought of as the future of media, the free and open spaces of thoughtful minds, the ushering in of the new era. If news was to go this route, we might soon see far worse than the people at FOX news.

I have, of course, talked myself right out of a solution, as that was the one I have for so long seen as viable. This, in turn, leaves me with nothing positve to say on this matter. For now.