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Fair & Balanced vs. Accurate and Contextualized

By Ben L. Kaufman · October 17th, 2012 · On Second Thought
on second thought 10-17
If this presidential campaign hasn’t been sufficiently enervating, here’s more dispiriting news. 

Gallup reports that “Americans’ distrust in the media hit a new high this year, with 60 percent saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly.”

As I use it, trust does not mean approval. It’s the expectation that someone will act as expected. Gallup’s 60 percent trust the news media to fail.

Mistrust makes it harder to discern campaign lies and willful distortions, it impoverishes our political discourse and it affects how individuals vote. 

Long before the American Right began its successful campaign to delegitimize the news media, the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Every man is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

No longer. Today, we don’t share a common set of facts from which to argue. Anything we don’t like is meant to manipulate us. Think about the GOP’s response to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest employment/unemployment numbers.

The first Republican response wasn’t to argue their meaning. It was to accuse these career statisticians of partisan mendacity in service to Obama’s re-election.

And there isn’t much we can do about this mindless response to unwanted information if Harvard’s Cass Sunstein is right. He says unambiguously accurate and fair reporting will be filtered through biases that prove journalists are knaves or fools. “Balanced presentations can fuel unbalanced views.”

Back to Gallup: “Record distrust in the media … also means that negativity toward the media is at an all-time high for a presidential election year.” Trust in the media was as high as 72 percent in the 1970s — almost twice today’s.

“Republicans continue to express the least trust in the media, while Democrats express the most. Independents’ trust … has continued to steadily decline.

“Despite their record-low trust in media, Republicans are the partisan group most likely to be paying close attention to news about national politics,” Gallup says, and that was true in 2008 and 2004.

Sunstein is a Harvard law professor and author of Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide. In a Sept. 17 New York Times op-ed, Sunstein wrote, “when like-minded people get together, they tend to end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk. The same kind of echo-chamber effect can happen as people get news from various media.”  

He says the remedy isn’t providing balanced information. “Evidence suggests that balanced presentations — in which competing arguments or positions are laid out side by side — may not help … When people begin with firmly held convictions, such an approach is likely to increase polarization.”

Sunstein blames “biased assimilation” when “people assimilate new information in a selective fashion. When people get information that supports what they initially thought, they give it considerable weight. When they get information that undermines their initial beliefs, they tend to dismiss it. … This natural human tendency explains why it’s so hard to dislodge false rumors and factual errors. Corrections can even be self-defeating, leading people to stronger commitment to their erroneous beliefs.

“ … In the face of entrenched social divisions, there’s a risk that presentations that carefully explore both sides will be counterproductive. And when a group, responding to false information, becomes more strident, efforts to correct the record may make things worse.

“Can anything be done? There is no simple term for the answer, so let’s make one up: ‘surprising validators.’ People tend to dismiss information that would falsify their convictions. But they may reconsider if the information comes from a source they cannot dismiss.

“People are most likely to find a source credible if they closely identify with it or begin in essential agreement with it. In such cases, their reaction is not, ‘how predictable and uninformative that someone like that would think something so evil and foolish,’ but instead, ‘if someone like that disagrees with me, maybe I had better rethink.’

“Our initial convictions are more apt to be shaken if it’s not easy to dismiss the source as biased, confused, self-interested or simply mistaken. … Turncoats, real or apparent, can be immensely persuasive. If civil rights leaders oppose affirmative action, or if well-known climate change skeptics say that they were wrong, people are more likely to change their views.”

“Here, then, is a lesson for all those who provide information. What matters most may be not what is said, but who, exactly, is saying it.”


CURMUDGEON NOTES 10.17.2012
Media musings from Cincinnati and beyond

• Look at the rare collection of Enquirer photos at the National Underground Freedom Center.  They’ve been reprinted and for many, reprinted copies of original pages are nearby.

The show is part of the much larger Fotofocus at many venues. Unfortunately, the Enquirer chose the Freedom Center which charges $12 admission; many Fotofocus displays are in admission-free venues such as the YWCA or UC’s Gallery on Sycamore.

I think the oldest photo is from 1948, a one-legged veteran leading a parade to commemorate the end of WWI 30 years earlier. Many are by photographers with whom I worked and whose images I displayed large on local pages during weekends when I edited.

Some are recent, by photographers I admire but know only from their images in the paper. 

To its credit, the Enquirer exhibit includes unpublished photos of which the photographers are justly proud. First among them is Gary Landers’ image of a homicide victim illuminated by an officer’s flashlight behind Landers’ home.

Missing are two images that remind me of what photojournalism is about. One is Gerry Wolters’ stunning — and in its time, controversial Pulitzer contender — of a dead African-American lying in a pool of his blood on the Avondale street where he’d been shot by a bailbondsman. Standing over him is the dead man’s young son. Some readers said our photo would ruin the child’s life. No, I told callers, if anything would it was his father’s killing. 

The other missing photo was one that wasn’t published by the paper: Glenn Hartong’s firefighter carrying a toddler from a burning house. I’m told that editors flinched because they didn’t know if the child survived. So what? That faux humanity illustrates Enquirer execs’ fear of readers tossing their cookies into the Cheerios. Such touchy-feely screening sanitizes what can be a nasty, brutish and short life and lifestyle in our region. Life Magazine published Hartong’s photo across two pages and someone posted it in the Enquirer newsroom coffee alley. It doesn’t get better than that.

In the Good Old Days, before self-inflicted sensitivity, the Enquirer had a unapologetic double standard for violent images. If the victim were local, the photo might be spiked to avoid upsetting readers. An example was the half-excavated body of a recognizable young construction worker suffocated in a trench cave-in.  Distant victims — executions, genocide or bodies in floods/earthquakes — were likelier to be displayed.

And even before the Good Old Days, Ed Reinke’s iconic photo of a line of shrouded bodies from the 1977 Beverly Hills supper club fire gave a sense of magnitude to the disaster that our best reporting couldn’t. It’s the first photo in the exhibit, preceded by a warning that some images could be troubling. They should be. I don’t know if Reinke’s photo would be used today.

• Ohio’s Sherrod Brown is among the Democratic senators targeted by out-of-state billionaire GOP donors. He’s an unapologetic liberal and the Progressive monthly made Brown’s re-election battle its latest cover story. A point I’d missed elsewhere is the unusual state FOP endorsement for a Democrat but Brown stood with officers against Republican legislation stripping them of most of their bargaining rights.

The Progressive story includes a Mason-area jeweler whose health insurer refused to pay for an advanced cancer treatment. Husband and wife say Reps. Jean Schmidt and John Boehner brushed off their pleas to intervene with the insurer. A Brown staffer — who said she didn’t care what party the Republican couple belongs to — spent the weekend successfully persuading the insurer to cover the potentially life-saving $100,000 procedure.

More recently, reporters on Diane Rehm’s public radio show estimated SuperPACs are spending $20 million to defeat Brown and suggested it might not suffice. As a DailyBeast.com columnist notes, polls show Republican Josh Mandel probably won’t even carry his home Jewish community in Cleveland.

• That same Progressive names 26 billionaires and their known donations to Republican and other rightwing causes in this election year. No Cincinnati-area men or women made the list but it’s reasonable to infer that some of the men listed donated secretly to Super PACs opposing Ohio’s Sherrod Brown’s re-election (see above).

• As one of that dying breed — an Enquirer subscriber who prefers print —  my morning paper is missing a lot. Customer service provided a free online copy and promised to deliver the missing paper paper the next day. Next day? Another customer service rep said only replacement Sunday Enquirers are delivered the same day. Message? Don’t stiff advertisers.

• The ad on the top half of the back page of the Oct. 11 Enquirer Local section invited everyone to a Romney-Ryan “victory event” on Oct. 13 at Lebanon’s Golden Lamb. The bold, black ad headline on the bottom half of the page was “The #1 dishwasher is also a best value.”

• Want to know more about Sarah Jones, the former Ben-Gal and school teacher who admitted to sex with a 17-year-old student? Among others, London’s Daily Mail has enough to satisfy anyone who doesn’t need to see a sex tape.

• Don’t piss off Turks. That’s a lesson lots of people have learned to their pain over the generations. No one will be surprised if Turkish forces invade Syria to end Syrian shelling of Turkish civilians.  Turkish troops have gone into Iraq to deal with threatening rebellious Turkish Kurds seeking sanctuary there.  Turkey is a NATO member and NATO says it will defend Turkey if required. A couple English-language websites can complement the snippets about this aspect of Syria’s civil war: aljazeera.com from the Gulf and hurriyetdailynews.com from Turkey. 

The New York Times stepped back from the slippery slope of allowing subjects of news stories to say what news is fit to print. It allowed some sources to review and possibly change their quotes before reporters used them. In July, Times reporter Jeremy Peters blew the whistle on the Times and other major news media. The alternative to quote approval often was the threat of no interview. Initially, the Times defended the practice. No longer. Jimromenesko.com reported the change.

Times executive editor Jill Abramson told Romenesko that  quote approval “puts so much control over the content of journalism in the wrong place . . . We need a tighter policy.”

Romenesko quoted a recent Times memorandum that said “demands for after-the-fact quote approval by sources and their press aides have gone too far . . . The practice risks giving readers a mistaken impression that we are ceding too much control over a story to our sources. In its most extreme form, it invites meddling by press aides and others that goes far beyond the traditional negotiations between reporter and source over the terms of an interview . . . So starting now, we want to draw a clear line on this. Citing Times policy, reporters should say no if a source demands, as a condition of an interview, that quotes be submitted afterward to the source or a press aide to review, approve or edit.”

Good. Here’s my question: What happens when a beat reporter can’t get an important interview after citing Times policy? Access is everything. Few people who want media attention will turn away the Times, but editors can get weird when reporters can’t get a desired interview. 

• Daily papers own and are members of the Associated Press. In their rush to be first, AP reporters used social media to get out the news and scooped member papers whose editors hadn’t seen the stories yet. That went over badly in today’s breathlessly competitive world. AP promises it won’t use social media until after breaking news is sent to members and non-member subscribers.
• It’s time for the news media to abandon “reverse discrimination” when the purported victim is white and English-speaking. It’s an issue again because the U.S. Supreme Court is reconsidering university racial admission criteria. A young woman claims the University of Texas rejected her because she is white. 

Discrimination is discrimination; someone is favored and someone is rejected. I won’t anticipate the court’s decision but the ethical issue is whether the community’s or the individual’s compelling interests are paramount when discrimination becomes policy and practice. Moreover, demographic trends could make “reverse discrimination” obvious nonsense if Anglos become a minority among newly-hyphenated and darker-skinned Americans and immigrants from Latin America, Africa and Asia.

 • We’ve seen three debates, two presidential, one veepish. The third was Tuesday or last night if you’re reading this on Wednesday. I missed it; I was fishing in Canada. Other journalists will tell you what you heard really means. I’ll catch up when I get home. At least the Biden-Ryan contest was lively and the moderator asked smart, sharp questions and kept the politicians under control.

• The vice president and challenger had disturbingly weird expressions when they listened. Biden’s smile recalled a colleague’s remark after waterskiing with me: “I saw Ben smile and he wasn’t baring his teeth.” Worse, Biden’s expression could appear to be a smirk.  Ryan’s intensity reminded me of a predator wondering about its next meal. Neither appearance had anything to do with the substance of the debate but it’s how we tend to judge people we don’t know. My question: Is this really how we choose the man one heartbeat away from leadership of The Free World (whatever the hell that means)?

• Viewers — and these performances are TV events — worry me. Too many tell reporters and pollsters that their votes can be influenced by how the candidates came across in the debates. The president and vice president do not belong to debating societies. This isn’t Britain’s House of Commons.  The ability to “win” a televised encounter has little or nothing to do with the job for which the men are contesting. Winners won’t debate until and unless they seek office again.

• News media would be in doldrums if there weren’t stories to write before and after each debate. They burn space and time when little else is happening - if you discount the economy, pestilence, war, famine, etc.

• Stories I didn’t read beyond the headlines. One’s from HuffingtonPost.com:
"Lindsay Lohan Reveals Her Pick For President"
The other is from the Thedailybeast.com:
"LINDSAY LOHAN PICKS MITT! & OTHER TOXIC ENDORSEMENTS"


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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