Posted by: N.S. Palmer | February 4, 2018

When News Media Aren’t Exactly Corrupt

News-media

Are the news media corrupt?

Most people say “yes.”

Leftists point to Fox News and The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page. Conservatives point to CNN and The New York Times.

They believe that such news outlets distort the facts and even lie about them.

Sometimes, that’s true. But there’s more to the story.

In the 1990s, I was a young newspaper reporter in Washington, DC. I was an accredited member of the U.S. House and Senate Press Galleries, covering Capitol Hill and several federal agencies. I saw from the inside how the news business works.

News versus opinion

Most people fail to make an important distinction. Editorial writers, columnists, and televised political commentators don’t report unbiased news. Usually, they don’t even pretend to do it. They’re arguing for their side of a debate.

If you read the editorial and op-ed pages of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, then you either know what you’re getting or you’re very naive. The same applies if you watch Tucker Carlson on Fox News or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. You know that they’re “on your side” of the debate. You want to learn things that reinforce what you already believe. Facts are okay, but you’re mainly looking for reassurance that you’re right.

As a result, there’s nothing dishonest about editorials or commentators arguing their case — as long as they don’t flat-out lie and as long as the other side is free to argue its case. None of it is straight news.

News reporting is different

News reporting is held to a higher standard.

Joseph Pulitzer, after whom the Pulitzer Prize is named, said that the three most important qualities of any news article were “accuracy, accuracy, and accuracy.”

My proudest claim as a reporter was this: That from reading my news articles, no one could discern what I personally believed about the subjects of the articles. I usually had opinions, but I kept them out of news writing. If I really wanted to argue a case, I wrote an opinion column.

It might surprise you to learn that a lot of other reporters felt the same way about their own work. They often agonized about how to present the news fairly and without bias. I attended several conferences about how to report the news professionally but truthfully. It’s not as easy as you might think.

News reporting vs. human nature

A big problem is that news reporters aren’t passionless robots. They’re fallible human beings. Despite their best efforts, human nature sometimes leads them astray.

One week when I was a reporter, there were rumors of a scandal at a certain federal department. In our daily staff meeting, the news editor asked if anyone could find out about it. I didn’t normally cover that department, but I had a friend who worked there. I volunteered to call him and ask about it.

When I called, he didn’t know anything about the rumors but he agreed to ask around. He later called back to explain that the “scandal” was just an acrimonious disagreement between two groups in the department. What he told me was “not for attribution,” which meant that I could quote him but not identify him by name.

We weren’t close friends, but I knew him fairly well. I knew his wife and children. He was a decent and honest guy. His explanation sounded reasonable, and I wanted to believe it. I checked around a little more, but I didn’t have any other good sources and I thought that I already knew the truth. So that’s what I reported in a news article.

It turned out that I was wrong. I misinformed my readers: unintentionally, to be sure, but I did.

After I called him, my friend probably went to his own boss to ask about the rumors. In turn, the boss probably asked his boss, who asked his boss, and they all agreed on what to tell the news media. That’s what they told my friend, and he relayed it to me.

The most dangerous media corruption

The most dangerous kind of media corruption doesn’t involve bribery, Russian hookers, or anything like that. It’s dangerous precisely because its origin is innocent. We want to believe in our friends. We want to believe that what’s good for them is also what’s true. We usually see the world in about the same way as they do: similar assumptions, moral beliefs, and feelings about political issues.

Now that news has become largely infotainment, there are plenty of dishonest reporters. Some less-experienced reporters probably have no idea of what “straight news” even is.

However, I’d bet that at least half of today’s biased news has a more innocent but equally harmful cause: Reporters are people. They know the people in the fields they cover. They believe their friends and they don’t want to hurt them. Even with the best intentions in the world, some biased reporting is impossible to avoid.

Getting a balanced perspective

As with buying sandwiches from street vendors, “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware) is a good motto for reading the news.

If you want to know the truth and not just reinforce what you already believe:

  • Look at a variety of news outlets to get different perspectives. If you read Breitbart all the time, make a point of reading The New York Times. If you watch MSNBC, force yourself to watch some Fox News. Each will tell you things that the others omitted and will give you a different slant on the news. If you combine the opposing slants, they cancel each other out so you get a more accurate picture of what’s happening.
  • Don’t read only the headlines. The reporter doesn’t write the headline under which the article is published. Often, headlines give a misleading impression about what the articles say. Sometimes, they even contradict what the articles say.
  • Watch out for weasel words such as “alleged,” “might,” “possibly,” and “could.” Those are red flags, indicating a conclusion that is not supported by the evidence. Anyone can “allege” anything, but that doesn’t make it true.
  • Watch out for anonymous sources. Sometimes, anonymous sources tell the truth. Other times, they lie under the cloak of anonymity. Treat all anonymous statements with skepticism, even — or especially — if they support “your side” of an argument.
  • Read the last few paragraphs. Biased reporters often “bury” inconvenient facts at the ends of articles. That way, people who only read the first few paragraphs get a false impression about what happened. Occasionally, less-biased reporters do it as well. If a scrupulous reporter knows that the editor is biased and won’t allow the mention of certain facts, he or she might bury them at the end, hoping that the editor won’t notice them. I’ve seen several articles like that in The New York Times.
  • Beware of accusations phrased as questions. Neither the question “Did Obama order illegal spying on the Trump campaign?” nor “Has Trump sided with Nazis?” tells you anything. They’re questions. But if you’re not paying much attention, your mind will convert them into beliefs that “Obama did” and “Trump has.” That’s why they work as propaganda. You’ll often see that trick used in headlines at the bottom of the screen on cable news shows.

Responses

  1. Well done! A balanced look at this subject flavored with personal experience.

    • Thanks, Jim. The only people who never make any mistakes are those who don’t do anything. 🙂

  2. WONDERFUL piece! Your observations are spot-on (“Even with the best intentions in the world, some biased reporting is impossible to avoid”) — as are your recommendations (“If you want to know the truth and not just reinforce what you already believe, look at a variety of sources to get different perspectives”). I’m going to take your advice and vary my media diet a bit, even if there’s a small chance my head will explode. 🙂

    • Thanks very much. I’m glad you liked it!

  3. […] My colleague N. Scott Palmer talks about bias in the news media. He cautions us to distinguish editorial content (of which there’s lots) from straight news. And he explains how even the most honorable reporter can get it wrong. Read When News Media Aren’t Exactly Corrupt […]

    • Thanks for the kind words and the mention on your blog!

  4. So many good points here. The distinction between news and comment seems all but lost today. Going back 40 years or so it seemed that the news to comment ratio was maybe 90/10. Today (in the infotainment era) that ratio has nearly reversed.

    I think the biggest source of bias in hard news today is the choice of what is or is not covered. Your advice to follow multiple sources (of different editorial positions) is crucial.

    Glad to see you are still writing, somehow your blog fell off of my radar.

    • Thanks! You’re right that bias by omission and selective focus are two of the biggest offenders. Sometimes, news media and politicians make truthful accusations about people they don’t like, but they fail to mention that they do exactly the same things whenever they get the chance.

  5. It would be a distinct pleasure to witness the establishment of a ‘news-reporter’s guild’, of which members can proudly attach and display their membership as credentials for accuracy in reporting. Membership requirements of high standard, and some (at least) professional statements that would set straight the record in the event of egregiously deceptive articles, columns, or headlines. Add to this, keeping an accessible scorecard of violations-violators. A resource for intelligent information consumers, who want to do reliability.checking, as part of a fact check.

    • It’s a great idea. At present, there are organizations that pretend to do it but are often blatantly biased. Maybe there is already a more reliable group; I’ll check around and let you know if I find anything.


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