The media does a terrible job explaining public policies, and one of the major causes is reporters’ reliance on “he says, she says” and faux authority figures who really have no business drilling into wonky policy debates.
A recent example: Ohio’s debate over whether teachers and school employees should be able to arm themselves. In most media reports, the issue of gun control typically turns into liberal supporters and conservative opponents yelling at each other about freedoms and public safety.
Now, it’s difficult to empirically tackle the philosophy of freedom, but public safety is a measurable, heavily studied topic. And the results are clear: States and countries with more guns tend to have more gun violence, and states and countries with less gun control tend to have more violence.
The evidence is rarely presented in the media. Instead, reporters too scared or perhaps too ignorant to do substantial research on a complicated topic write down what the talking heads say and put it to print, no questions asked. At that point, it’s up to the public to decide which vague, hyperbolic, partisan quote merits support.
But the approach ignores a fundamental conflict of interest that follows nearly every debate in politics: Both sides know they need to pander to constituents with catchy talking points, even if they don’t actually believe what they’re saying.
When it comes to gun control, conservatives know they need to appeal to hyper-vocal supporters of gun rights to help get re-elected, and liberals know they need to drum up support from equally vocal advocates of gun control. Under such circumstances, staying on message is much more important than telling the truth.
Normally, a good reporter would approach such a situation with a high degree of skepticism.
That’s when empirical evidence would come in to actually contextualize the talking points.
Instead, reporters rarely seem to realize their job goes beyond writing down catchy quotes. The typical reporter usually acts more like a scribe than a journalist.
The “he says, she says” problem is at its worst when the mainstream media tackles scientific issues like evolution and global warming. Let’s be absolutely clear: There is no scientific basis for disputing either evolution or global warming. Modern biology doesn’t function without evolution. And scientists overwhelmingly, with 95-plus percent certainty, say human actions contribute to global warming, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
Yet these issues are often framed in a “he says, she says” format when some politicians want to squeeze creationism into the classroom or the scientifically illiterate deny that global warming is happening at all.
For the media, the problem might be that empirical evidence is less relatable. It is a lot more exciting to hear a politician throw out the latest focus-group-tested, conclusive talking point than read a boring, sometimes inconclusive study with a bunch of confusing numbers.
But that shouldn’t stop the media from trying. The goal of the Fourth Estate is to foster an educated, nuanced democracy. Finding new ways to clearly, concisely explain empirical evidence would go a long way to doing just that.
It might be hard — it’s certainly more difficult than quoting a hyperbolic politician without any sort of fact check — but the end result would be a much more informed public.
Other News and Stuff
• State Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, continues comparing Ohio’s Clean Energy Law to Stalinism. But it remains unclear how a set of communist, authoritarian policies relates to renewable energy and efficiency goals adopted in many capitalist democracies. (For a full breakdown of the differences between Stalinism and the Clean Energy Law, check out our coverage here.)
• A set of studies found gentrification could benefit longtime residents by providing new economic opportunities. Still, the findings cautioned that higher costs from gentrification could push out renters, particularly the elderly, people with disabilities and those without rent-stabilized apartments. In other words, redevelopment can benefit everyone, but only if it’s done right.
• Ohio’s unemployment rate hit 7.2 percent in December, down from 7.4 percent in November and up from 6.7 percent in December 2012. In the past year, Ohio added 25,600 nonfarm jobs while the ranks of the unemployed grew by 31,000. The overall negative results paint a grim picture of Ohio’s economy, which multiple studies and indicators suggest is doing much worse than the rest of the nation.