Tag Archives: objectivity

Communicating?

Communication is hard work in the best of times–and we definitely don’t live in the best of times.

Academics who study communication tend to focus on barriers to understanding like cultural differences and different reactions to “nonverbal” cues and body language. (I await research on how Zoom interactions affect those nonverbal cues…)There’s a whole field of intercultural communication, established back in 1959 by an anthropologist named Edward Hall.

So what–I hear you asking–does any of this abstract scholarly research have to do with the people filling American streets clamoring for justice and change?

A lot, I think. An enormous amount of civic unrest is a result of failure to truly communicate.

A recurring discussion on this blog has focused on the extent to which our inability to understand each other is been rooted in the media environment we currently inhabit. It isn’t simply the propaganda promulgated by talk radio, Fox and Sinclair–it is also the relatively recent, well-meaning but misplaced effort of so-called “Legacy” media to be “balanced,” to be fair, to give even the fringiest points of view a respectful treatment. As a result, even bizarre perspectives have been given a patina of respectability. This emphasis on “balance” plays directly into the narrative of the far Right–and the recent publication of the Tom Cotton op-ed by the New York Times is just one recent example.  Zuckerberg’s cowardly refusal to fact-check Republican lies on FaceBook is another.

Heather Cox Richardson sees signs that such unearned respect may be changing–and that Trump’s sinking poll results are evidence that he and his enablers are losing the benefits of that unduly deferential narrative.

Even more indicative that the national narrative is changing was the announcement yesterday that James Bennet had resigned as the editorial page editor of the New York Times. Bennet ran an op-ed last Wednesday by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton titled (by the Times, not by Cotton) “Send in the Troops.” The inflammatory piece blamed “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa” for an “orgy of violence” during the recent protests and claimed that “outnumbered police officers… bore the brunt of the violence.” Neither of these statements is true, and they clothe a false Republican narrative in what appears to be fact. Cotton’s solution to the protests was to send in the military to restore “law and order,” and he misquoted the Constitution to defend that conclusion.

The kerfuffle over this op-ed seems like it’s more than a normal media skirmish. For more than a century, American media has tried to report facts impartially….

Richardson pegs the start of talk radio to the abandonment of the Fairness Doctrine; it was the beginning of a propaganda barrage with which we are now all too familiar:  white taxpayers under siege by godless women and people of color. Fox News Channel wasn’t far behind. Fox’s greatest success was in equating “fair” with “balanced.”  Other media outlets became defensive; in order to protect themselves against charges that they were biased, they accepted the notion that media must show “both sides.”

Richardson thinks Bennet’s resignation over the Cotton op-ed “marks a shift in the media that has been building for months as newspapers and television chyrons increasingly check political falsehoods in favor of fact-based argument.”

If accurate, that is good news. It would be even better if the Left wasn’t–once again–engaging in communicative suicide.

Richardson is hardly the only commentator expressing frustration over the slogan  “defund the police”–a phrase that suggests abolishing police departments. What is actually intended is perfectly reasonable–  proponents want to shrink police responsibilities and decrease police budgets, investing instead in the community resources that have lost money as police budgets have exploded–but it is hard to imagine a stupider slogan or a more welcome gift to a GOP desperately trying to change the subject from a pandemic and massive protests.

They may not be able to govern, but one thing Republicans are good at is labeling, at carefully choosing terminology likely to resonate with the majority of voters who are not obsessively following political news and able to “deconstruct” political phrasing. Remember the “death tax”? Remember when “undocumented workers” became “illegal aliens,” the “social safety net” became “socialism,” and “national health care” became “socialized medicine”?

I think Richardson is right that the media is–slowly– jettisoning false equivalency for fact-based objectivity. That’s good news for “team blue”–and not an invitation to muddy the waters with yet another unforced communication error.

When you mean “reform policing,” say “reform policing,” or something similar. Don’t hand Trump a weapon with which to confuse and mislead. Communicate!

Policy and Polarization

Numbers cruncher Nate Silver took a look at the recent New York Times poll of people who consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party movement, and noted that media habits were the most salient predictor of such support.

According to Silver, “Tea-partiers are disproportionately attached to, and perhaps influenced by, FOX News. And they are particularly enamored of Glenn Beck. Nationally, just 18 percent of people have a favorable opinion of Beck (the majority have no opinion whatsoever about him). But most tea-partiers do… 59 percent of those who do think highly of Beck consider themselves a part of the tea-party. This is, in fact, the single biggest differentiator of any of the items that the NYT asked about: not ideology, not any particular political belief, but whom they watch on television.”

It isn’t just Fox. Increasingly, the television programming you watch, the newspapers, magazines and blogs you read, and the other media you access have become predictors of the reality you inhabit.

Over the past eight years, I have team-taught a course with James Brown, Associate Dean of IUPUI’s Journalism School. The course is titled “Media and Public Affairs” and it enrolls both journalism and policy students. Its purpose is to explore the mutual dependence of the media and government.  When we first taught the course, it was a relatively straightforward exploration of the history of American journalism and freedom of the press: today, we aren’t even sure what “the media” is. And that’s a problem, not just for the classroom, but for the country.

In a large and diverse democracy, the ability of citizens to make informed decisions about public policy is critically dependent upon the quality, objectivity and completeness of the information available to them. We are seeing dramatic changes in the ways in which Americans access that information. At a time when the relationship between government and media has become increasingly important, that relationship has become increasingly problematic.

The media’s role in American policymaking involves two supremely important functions, that of “watchdog” and that of information provider. The watchdog function is intended to keep public administrators honest; the information function allows the public to make reasoned judgments, not just about their government’s actions and decisions, but about the all-important context within which those actions are taken and decisions made.

Governments depend upon a properly functioning media in order to make sound policy; citizens require a properly functioning media to ensure that their own policy judgments are informed.

The ideal of journalism is objectivity, difficult as that often is to achieve. Every journalist cannot be Walter Cronkite, but we cannot function as citizens without genuinely impartial and trustworthy sources of information. When we substitute commentators for reporters, when supposedly reputable news sources act like stenographers—giving us “balance” (i.e. “he said, she said”) without fact-checking who’s telling the truth—we end up in a black and white world where we can choose the “facts” we prefer to believe.

And then we wonder why everyone is so angry.

Journalism’s Responsibility?

In a recent blog post at Political Animal, Steve Benen addressed the decision of the Washington Post to run an op-ed on climate change written (okay, probably ghost-written, since she’s given no hint that she’s familiar with the English language) by Sarah Palin.

The problem isn’t just that the paper published another right-wing piece from someone who’s obviously clueless — note, the WaPo published a similarly foolish Palin op-ed in July — it’s that the piece is factually wrong. The paper has a responsibility to publish content that informs its readers. Obviously, with “opinion” pieces, the standards are slightly different, but that does not give the editors license to run claims that are patently, demonstrably false.

Marc Ambinder had a very strong post, reviewing Palin’s claims, point by point, which is worth checking out. But also don’t miss Media Matters’ piece, which notes that the Palin op-ed even contradicts the Washington Post‘s own reporting.

This assertion raises an issue that is becoming increasingly important: what is the obligation of so-called “mainstream” journalists to fact-check what they print? On the one hand, as Benen acknowledges, this is an opinion piece, and clearly labeled as such. On the other hand, one of the concerns voiced about the imminent demise of newspapers is that readers will be deprived of genuine journalism, which is expensive to produce in large part because journalists are expected to engage in fact-checking and verification of claims they publish.

The Washington Post regularly runs columns by George Will–who clearly does not choose to believe the science of climate change–that contain demonstrably false factual claims. On rare occasion–VERY rare–they’ve later apologized. (Generally, only after the outcry from the scientific community was deafening.) 

I write op-eds, and I would be indignant if my editor (who virtually always disagrees with me about policy choices) changed my columns. On the other hand, I make strenuous efforts to ensure the accuracy of factual assertions, and to be clear about what parts of my columns are based on evidence and which parts are my opinions.

The fractured nature of our media environment makes it much too easy to dismiss ALL news sources as unreliable or biased. The most important argument for “real” journalism–i.e., not talk radio, not shock jocks, not panderers/water-carriers like Fox News and the rightwing/leftwing blogs–is that they are the best source of objective information. (Objectivity, by the way, is different from “balance.” If 99 percent of observers agree that the object before them is a cup, balance requires finding the one delusional individual who insists it is a plate. Objectivity requires the reporter to call it a cup.) If we can’t depend upon the mainstream media to fact-check what they print, what becomes of that argument?

Thoughts?