So I promised there would be a post here about, uh, five days ago?
I’m not even going to apologize this time. Y’all know it’s par for the course with this blog.
So I mentioned I would be going a little more in-depth about the idea of objectivity in journalism, or the idea that the media has to report ‘both’ sides of a story.
This idea has always bothered me. First off, there are almost never just two sides to any story. Sometimes there are 7 sides or 10 sides or maybe even just one. (Though if there’s just one, maybe you need a different angle. I’ve never had just one side to a story.)
In Episode Two of The Newsroom, they talk about making News 2.0. News that relies on facts, doesn’t try to sway you with an emotional plea and most importantly, presents the best form of every argument. All the sides of the story so to speak.
Will McAvoy uses the following example: “If the Republicans tried to pass a bill tomorrow saying the Earth is flat, the headline from the Times would be, ‘Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on the whether the Earth is flat.”
That’s completely true, but not the best form of the argument. In that context, the best form of the argument might be “Republicans reject current scientific knowledge” or “Bogus bill put forward to delay passage of the ACA.”
But let me give you my favorite real life example.
So there’s this thing called global warming. We’ve all heard of it by now. We jokingly blamed the weather on it until it became pretty clear it actually was messing with our rainfall. Then we shook our fists at it. But most scientists, including some who were disbelievers before, are now certain that it exists and that humans are impacting the Earth at an alarming rate. The U.S. Global Change Research Program, part of the National Science and Technology Council, has stated that “The global warming observed over the past 50 years is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations group that defines the scientific agreement across nations, said in it’s 2007 report that humans are most likely to have caused the global warming that has occurred over the last 50 years. In science speak, “most likely” means an over 90 percent chance. It’s the closest you’re going to get to a definite yes from almost any scientist worth his salt, let alone an entire panel.
And yet, because some people don’t want to believe that we could possibly be having this impact on our planet – and that our industry might have to change – they try to debunk climate science in any way possible. And because the journalistic norm is for everyone to have a voice, these people get so much attention from the media that the general public thinks the debunkers are a credible source. Even back in 2004 researchers recognized media bias as a serious problem in the fight against global warming.
In the conclusion of a report from the University of California – Santa Cruz’s Environmental Studies Department, two researchers named Boykoff and Boykoff stated the following:
“In the end, adherence to the norm of balanced reporting leads to informationally biased coverage of global warming. This bias, hidden behind the veil of journalistic balance, creates both discursive and real political space for the US government to shirk responsibility and delay action regarding global warming.”
It also found that major news outlets, such as the New York Times, The Washington Post, the L.A. Times and others, have contributed to a lack of knowledge by the general public of what scientists think about global warming and what should be done about it by “adherence to journalistic norms, and more specifically to the journalistic norm of balance.”
Basically, there aren’t two sides to this story. There is global warming and there are people who want to pretend it doesn’t exist because global warming might mess with their profits.
Now, thankfully, I went to a college that factored ethics very highly into my education and we were taught that giving balance to a story shouldn’t be as important as telling the truth. But the truth doesn’t sell papers and the truth doesn’t get funding. “Balance” does.
So, in the case of global warming, the correct headline might be “Companies create propaganda campaign to cast doubt on global warming.”
But no one is reporting that.
And that is reason #1 why I had a problem with working as a journalist.
Next time, I’ll discuss another aspect to the bias-balance debate, one that also became very close to my heart over the last year: personal politics and objectivity.
I’ll leave you with this wonderful clip of Will McAvoy discussing what is best and worst about America to warm your heart. I know it had me cheering by the end.