Thursday, April 1, 2010

On Journalism and Being Wrong

The other day on Facebook, a former newspaper colleague of mine made an observation that evoked an odd combination of reactions within me.

Newspapers will never become extinct in America, he wrote, because of the need for an independent government watchdog.

I found that reassuring. It reminded me of what I was told, over and over, when I was a journalism student in college. And it tied in nicely with what I learned in my studies of American history.

It spoke to something that I have always held to be true — that a free and independent press is necessary for a nation to remain free and independent as well.

In the 18th century, the role of a free press in preserving liberty was considered crucial by those who led the American Revolution. That is why the guarantee of the independence of the free press was included in the First Amendment.

The press could not be free, the thinking went, if it was controlled to any extent by the government. Thomas Jefferson, who is remembered as one of the greatest presidents, was no stranger to the vilification of the press of his day; nevertheless, he asserted in his second inaugural address that if the government could not withstand criticism from the press, it deserved to fail.

That still seems pretty sound, observed as it is from the perspective of more than two centuries later. Just about all the people with whom I have worked in the newspaper business — or with whom I studied journalism in college — believed in this concept.

But does it only have relevance for print journalists? Are they the only ones who bear the burden of truth? If that is so, why are newspapers struggling while broadcasting outlets appear to be thriving?

Well, it seems to me that, unless all you look at is the balance sheet, broadcasting isn't necessarily thriving — at least, not when it comes to the perception of independence. That may be an inevitable by–product of the polarized society in which we live, but surely, it seems to me, there is more to it than that.

For many years, I have heard complaints about the media's "liberal bias." I have resisted such talk, not because I agree with liberal political philosophy — I agree with some, but not all, of it — but because it contradicts what I was taught. More than that, it contradicts what I have believed most of my life.

Having said that, though, I feel compelled to point out that scientists (and I have known a few in my life) face this sort of thing all the time. I haven't known a scientist yet who did not have some sort of preconceived notion — a pet theory — that was verifiably disproved through the results of experiments.

Perhaps that is why scientists (in my experience, anyway) are more open to opinions that differ from their own than just about anyone with whom I have ever exchanged ideas. Mind you, I don't always agree with them. In fact, I frequently don't understand the concepts they talk about. What makes them different, I think, is that they are not just accustomed to being wrong — they are accustomed to being proven wrong.

And, when you are proven wrong, you really have no choice except to change your mind. Scientists have to do that a lot.

That works pretty well in fields where concepts can be tested. But journalism isn't really like that. There are subtle differences inherent to the same words, whereas the value of a number tends to be consistent.

Words are open to individual interpretations. Reporters can't afford to be casual about the words they choose. Are you old enough to remember Art Linkletter? He used to say, "Kids say the darnedest things." Well, I can tell you that newspaper readers interpret the darnedest things.

I'll give you a for instance. When I was in journalism school, my professors told us that it was a good idea to use neutral language whenever possible.

We could write, for example, that someone said something. If what was said was expressed in the form of a question, we could write that the person asked something. But other descriptions implied some sort of judgment call. If, for example, something was said loudly, would it be appropriate to write that someone shouted it? Maybe. And maybe not. The speaker may have a naturally loud voice.

And what if the person laughed while speaking? Should you make laughed the verb instead of said? If you use laughed, what does that imply to the reader? Does it suggest a sneering, belittling attitude? Or does it indicate a nervousness on the part of the speaker? Perhaps that depends on what was said.

Well, that's a relatively benign example, I suppose.

What is not so benign, it seems to me, is the way that, more and more, poll results are reported as facts when all they really are is the sampling of public opinion (and, frequently, the most extreme examples of public opinion that can be found) at a particular time. And that colors not only how people feel about what they read but the publication in which they read it. The results were not written in stone, even though some people (including some journalists, who really ought to know better) seem to have believed that they were — which may account for the gnashing of teeth you hear on the left these days. Many of the folks on that side of the political spectrum apparently were under the impression that the astoundingly high approval numbers that followed Barack Obama into office in January 2009 were permanent when, in fact, they were an expression of general relief that an unpopular president was leaving office.

Obama and the Democrats have experienced something that nearly every president and his supporters have experienced in the history of this nation — a gap between the rhetoric and the reality. It is the main reason why midterm elections tend to go against the party in power.

I think (and, again, I could be wrong, although I know of no experiment that could put this to the test) that the fact that Obama's initial approval numbers were unsustainable has created a problem of credibility for some folks in the media. And that's a problem that was largely created by the media folks themselves — in the way they presented those numbers.

CNN, for example, has long prided itself on its reliance on hard news, yet it has been a target for those on the right for years. During the Clinton presidency, it was derisively called the Clinton News Network because it supposedly promoted Clinton administration policies.

The perception that CNN fawns over the left may be taking its toll with audiences. Bill Carter reported this week, in the New York Times, that CNN's prime time ratings declined in the first quarter of this year, as did MSNBC's — in spite of the fact there was plenty of hard news (i.e., the earthquake in Haiti and the battle over health care reform).

Meanwhile, Carter writes, "the Fox News Channel ... enjoyed its best quarter ever."

Thomas Lifson wrote about this in American Thinker in an article headlined "Liberal media death spiral intensifies." To be sure, Lifson displays some biases of his own. For one, he refers to CNN's Anderson Cooper as "openly gay," a point that is in some dispute (although by casually mentioning it in his article, Lifson was able to fan the flames). Cooper, son of heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, has refused to discuss his sexuality; although he has never married, he has discussed his desire to someday have children.

Whether Cooper is gay or not is really beside the question, and it has no real bearing on the subject being discussed. Nevertheless, Lifson raises a point that is more germane when he observes that Fox is "the only major news source willing to ask tough questions to President Obama and the Democrats."

Now, there is an issue that has dogged Obama since the 2008 campaign. It has long been asserted that many in the media gave Obama a free pass during the campaign while seizing every opportunity to criticize Sarah Palin. It may be a false assertion, but it is tough to plausibly present that case when one compares video from Obama's campaign coverage and Palin's.

Well, I guess that's plain vanilla compared to John Avlon's article for The Daily Beast that quoted a Harris poll that made such incendiary suggestions as "[t]wo–thirds think [Obama's] a socialist, 57 percent a Muslim — and 24 percent say 'he may be the Antichrist.' "

This seems almost fundamental to me, but Greg Marx felt compelled to remind journalists, in the Columbia Journalism Review, that they should not do what Avlon did: He made references to the complete results of the poll, which would not be available for a few days. And that, Marx wrote, meant that "there was no way for readers to see them — and, more importantly, no way for skeptics to examine the poll's methodology — as the early numbers filtered through the media."

When those results did come out, they were "promptly and persuasively skewered."

Yet there were many in the general population who believed those conclusions, and there are some who still believe, in spite of the evidence, that they are accurate.

"[T]he existence of these polls makes it harder to communicate good information," writes Marx. "For a number of reasons, it would be journalistically valuable to try to deduce the broader state of opinion among conservative voters, and both polling and old–fashioned reporting can play a role in that process."

But he has a warning. "[I]n order both to be credible and to be perceived as credible, that undertaking has to come from a place of open inquiry, not from an expectation that the results will boost book sales, create a news cycle, or confirm a political narrative. The whole appeal of polling is its promise (sometimes oversold) to produce objective, almost scientific data that tells us something about the state of our politics. When that enterprise itself becomes an exercise in political gamesmanship, it may foster cynicism about the utility and quality of any effort to collect information. If any given piece of news is valuable only insofar as it advances a particular political view, then they are all in a sense equivalent, which is to say worthless."

In essence, Marx advocates "closer scrutiny." Those in the Fourth Estate "need to push back against rhetorical opportunism and statistical sloppiness on all sides. Journalists can do this by not cutting corners when reporting and compiling data — but also by making the case for why methodological rigor is valuable, and by providing readers with the tools to evaluate information themselves."

My friend was right when he wrote about the necessity of the watchdog role played by journalists. But journalists must be diligent watchdogs not only when dealing with elected officials — but also with any other source of information.

In the quest for the sensational to drive up ratings or increase circulation figures, it is all too easy for journalists to be used.

And then they cease to be free.

I think I would rather be wrong on my own from time to time.

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