Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Media Biases and Possible Solutions?

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof talks about the reduced credibility of the press these days, citing a recent Pew study showing that, "45 percent of Americans believe little or nothing in their daily newspapers, up from 16 percent two decades ago."

The most ominous aspect of this story, from Kristof's perspective, is that it gives latitude to judges and other public officials in deciding how to interpret the First Amendment's press freedoms. He suggests that public support for the media is far more important to insuring freedom of the press than is the Bill of Rights itself.

He goes on to review some of the allegations against the press and what the press might do to increase its credibility with the public.

Kristof concludes his piece with this:

I don't see any easy solutions, but print, radio and television all need to take much bolder steps to reconnect with the public.

More openness, more willingness to run corrections, more ombudsmen, more acknowledgement of our failings - those are the kinds of steps that are already under way and that should be accelerated. It would help if news organizations engaged in more outreach to explain themselves, with anchors or editors walking readers through such minefields as why we choose to call someone a "terrorist," or how we wield terms like "pro-life" or "pro-choice."

We also need more diverse newsrooms. When America was struck by race riots in the late 1960's, major news organizations realized too late that their failure to hire black reporters had impaired their ability to cover America. In the same way, our failure to hire more red state evangelicals limits our understanding of and ability to cover America today.

I think we're nuts not to regulate handguns more strictly, but I also think that gun owners have a point when they complain that gun issues often seem to be covered by people who don't know a 12-gauge from an AR-15.

If one word can capture the public attitude toward American journalists, I'm afraid it's "arrogant." Not surprisingly, I think that charge is grossly unfair. But it's imperative that we respond to that charge - not by dismissing it, but by working far more diligently to reconnect with the public.

Unless we can recover the public trust, our protests about reporters' going to jail will come across as self-serving whining. And we'll wake up one day to find ourselves on the wrong side of history.

While there is little doubt that increasing numbers of Americans view what is reported by the mainstream media with skepticism, Kristof's thoughtful piece also may be an example of slightly overwrought hand-wringing. A few observations:

(1) I think that a more detailed examination of people's beliefs about media credibility would reveal that our attitudes are more complicated than can be conveyed by a simple, "Is the media credible?" question.

People generally have their favorite media outlets, which they probably regard as being more credible than others. This phenomenon is analogous to people's varied attitudes about the Congress, on the one hand, and their individual Congressman or Congresswoman, on the other. In the congressional district in which I live, for example, there is little doubt in my mind that most people don't care much for the Congress, but they're generally wild about Congressman Rob Portman.

(2) I think that sometimes people detect the withholding of information by various media outlets. But often, the people who feel this way, actually have the information they claim not to see in the media. Often, callers to radio programs begin their calls by saying something like, "Why hasn't the media reported..." and then go on to cite an event or factoid their knowledge of which obviously derived from the media.

The real beef for such folks then, isn't that the media hasn't reported an event or fact, it's that the media hasn't given as much attention to it as this person would prefer. That may be legitimate, but sometimes it's not. Nonetheless, I wonder whether it's fair to universalize that the media isn't credible simply because one finds it less than credible in a specific case.

(3) I think that generally speaking, people invest credibility in the media's reporting of what I would describe as everyday, pedestrian events, things like: a plane crashed today, four protesters were arrested, X Corporation announced expansion plans, the forecast calls for sunshine tomorrow, and so forth.

Where the media gets into trouble is when it attempts to explain facts. The traditional press has an obligation to offer explanations, to dig for the truth behind the facts. The problem is that many people detect biases, biases that I think are clearly present.

(4) Kristof is right in saying that the press could do with more openness. But his suggestion that more Red State folks be hired for newsrooms throughout the country is problematic, even for Red State people.

Surely, if the problem with America's mainstream media is that it is biased, the answer is not the institution of a hiring bias, one that would probably be illegal anyway.

The ultimate reason many Americans feel that the media is biased is their suspicion that it denigrates their life styles, their religion, and their values. This is the sentiment of people in America's "flyover" states and that's what lay behind the decreasing credibility of the press.

The answer though can't be quotas. The answer, it seems to me, is inculcating an attitude among fledgling and veteran journalists that sees the possibility that people in places like Archbold, Ohio, and Effingham, Illinois, and Pilot Knob, Missouri, and Valdosta, Georgia, and a thousand other dots on the map lead worthy lives, have intelligent thoughts, do notable things.

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