Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Balance Alone Blinds News Consumers – Fosters Gridlock

Two weeks ago, I made a pit-stop part way into a day-long drive down through two national parks including the Jackson Hole, a valley along the iconic 44-mile Teton Range ending at the town of Jackson, Wyoming, just over the range from my birthplace.

During that respite I checked a newspaper I read digitally where I came across an op=ed column referring to a “cult of balance.” Only it resonated for me more as related to news media and continued to cross my mind as I wound my way back south and east to Durham and I’ve continued to think about it during the week since my return.

The op-ed, by Princeton economics professor and columnist Dr. Paul Krugman, articulated something I had witnessed first-hand many times during my nearly four-decade career in community marketing where an integral part of my responsibilities included being a resource and/or spokesman for news media.

Main stream news coverage in general has become so balance-obsessed that it unintentionally, but effectively, blinds news consumers to critical information while enabling superficial conclusions, “cheap-shot” artists, grandstanders and, not just recently, political extortion.

Of course, I’m not referring to Fox News or the Excellence In Broadcasting Network which are avowedly partisan and borderline entertainment vs. news and where sifting any fact from fiction requires processing the contents through FactCheck.org or MediaMatters.org, tools which by-the-way, are useful for monitoring any kind of misinformation or hyperbole.

Genuine mainstream news reporters and editors, and for that matter publishers, appear to be so determined to be viewed as fair to every side of a story that an often contrived balance unfairly blinds news consumers whenever the media fails or neglects to reveal whenever information or statements have been proven false or have repeatedly failed to withstand independent scrutiny and verification.

Not everything has two equally balanced sides. Not every side of an issue is equally factual. Eventually the preponderance of verifiable evidence (not just opinion) should become part of the news coverage, especially when it is contrary to conventional wisdom or dogma or ideology.

A shortage of staff and resources result in many news stories now devolving into simple “he-said, she-said” dramas. When it isn’t noted in stories that one side or the other has provided factual evidence vs. just opinion or has been discredited by objective, third-party analysis, news consumers are left to view everything in gridlock, everything as political.

Not everyone is unreasonable. Not everyone is partisan. Not everyone is inflexible. Not everyone is a victim. Some people deliberately lie. Some people shun responsibility. Some things just haven’t worked, no matter how well-intended.

When objective, third-party evidence exists, I believe the news media has a responsibility to give it as much attention as the “he-said, she-said” versions. Providing information and shedding light isn’t taking sides.

Of course, it ultimately the responsibility of individuals to be informed and to sift fact from fiction and misinformation. I’m not faulting the mainstream news media as much as suggesting that it should not be deemed “imbalanced” to reveal evidence,when it exists, that will help make sense of a story that otherwise doesn’t “add up” and all to often is dismissed as a personality conflict or grudge-match.

Not everyone reads. Not everyone is objective or open-minded. Not everyone seeks alternative viewpoints. Not everyone is a news junkie. Not everyone has a confirming “myside” bias. Not everyone is ethical.

Gridlock is the result of ignorance or a lack of perspective. Ironically, stories contrived for balance foster gridlock. It is time for the legitimate news media to tell it like it is, even if the facts mean the story won’t be perfectly “balanced” or that those exposed will go “ballistic.”

This is especially true if, as cultural historian Neal Gabler writes, we’re no longer in the Age of Enlightenment that inspired America’s founders and the people who have made this nation great.

Instead, Gabler writes, while we’re awash in the Age of Information, we’re also “in the post-enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy.”

If we’re truly in an age of information with fewer thinkers, we need news reports and the media to be more revealing of things that just aren’t true.

1 comment:

Frank Hyman said...

Hey Reyn, excellent point--my wife gets to hear me gripe about just this "cult of balance" almost every morning over the paper and coffee.

Would love to see you put this idea into a 6-800 word op-ed in the N&O.

Also, got to tell you that I think you would enjoy the show at Roylee's gallery, Through This Lens right now. Young photographer has really captured photos of Durham scenes that really bring them to life. And my wife will tell you that I am not easily impressed by other people's art. I think you'd like his stuff. take care, Frank Hyman