Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Objectivity in the Media

I'm mildly obsessed with the notion of objectivity and this obsession has a lot of different angles, most of which I won't go into here. But listening to the radio on the way home today highlighted one that continues to vex me.

We hear a lot--way too much, in fact--about various "media biases." Most of this banter comes from the right as they complain about the "biased mainstream liberal media." But to be fair (dare I say objective?), there are also complaints on the left about certain conservatively biased media outlets.

Some of this is surely posturing. If you can claim to be oppressed, then perhaps you can garner some sympathy and get more votes. And if present yourself as "objective" or "fair and balanced" in contrast to all the other partisan hacks (who happen also to be your competitors), that is a nice means of self-promotion.

However, you don't get to be fair and balanced just by saying you are fair and balanced. So, assuming that we want our media to be fair and balanced, how do we know if they are meeting that standard?

This is a slightly different question than, "What are the standards of objectivity for the media?" We can, presumably, spell out what kind of objectivity we want from reporters and commentators. We might disagree about some of the finer points but my guess is that there would be broad agreement on the basics: e.g, not misrepresenting the facts, giving voice to different points of view, not working actively for the advancement of certain causes, etc. Fair enough.

The problem is that the only means we have of evaluating how well the media is doing come from the media themselves. We need information in order to make such evaluations and in the overwhelming majority of cases, that information comes from the very media that we are trying to evaluate. This is why there is almost no way to convince someone of the objectivity or bias of a given media source if they are not already so convinced. Any evidence or argument that you might offer is bound to be viewed as fruit of the poisoned tree.

I confess that I'm not really sure how to get out of this conundrum but I'm certainly open to suggestions.


NonVoxPop said...

Some of the problem, I think, is that we've moved beyond "just the facts, ma'am, just the facts" to commentary and "analysis" necessitated by 24 hour news networks. Since whole channels are devoted to news around the clock, and there's not enough truly interesting news to fill the time. One option might be for channels to go deeper into the issues, ala the Discovery Channel or National Geographic (while not "news," nonetheless objective information/reporting). What they've chosen to do instead is provide commentary in the guise of analysis. That can be seen on CNN as well as Fox.

Even sources aspiring to objectivity are having a tough go of it. For instance, they want to report on the election getting nasty, so they cite to Palin's "pallin' around with terrorists" comment and the Obama camp's characterization of McCain as "erratic." I've no doubt the news source believed they were being objective by criticizing both campaigns, but in fact only one of the campaigns was conceivably out of line. Like issues can be seen throughout the election coverage. Reporters have mistaken "objective" for "equally critical." To illustrate my point with exaggeration, it's like a therapist telling a beat-up spouse "well, you did burn the meatloaf."

I'm not sure at this point that the news agencies know any better. They just know that they need commercials to survive, and for those commercials to be seen, they don't want to over-alienate 1/2 their audience, which they'd do by reporting to favorably or disfavorably toward a candidate, regardless of how objectively true such reporting is.

I suppose an answer would be for consumers who value truth over spin to purchase ad-free reporting.

NonVoxPop said...

Holy crap, I wrote a lot. Sentence fragments and misspellings aside, though, I stand by it. :^)