Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What we should expect from our news.

From time to time since February 2008, when my long article on journalism and the news media first appeared in the online version of Skeptic*, people have asked me for more specifics on what I regard as the building blocks of valid, serious-minded news coverage. This is going to be a lengthy post, so I'll dive right in without further preamble.

The News must be apolitical.

This line of thought reached critical mass in 2001 with the controversy over Bernie Goldberg and his muck-raking book, Bias**, which savaged the mainstream media for its strong (and unapologetic) leftward tilt. It's a familiar argument by now and there's no need to go into it at any great length. I think we'd get a fairly universal buy-in—at least in principle—on the idea that the News should never have a specific political agenda, Left or Right. That consensus is likely to crumble a bit when you get to a more pointed discussion of implementation. For example, we'd have no trouble finding a large group of people who think The New York Times reports the news "straight," as well as another large group who think FOX News really is "fair and balanced" in its reportage. In truth, neither the Times nor FOX comes anywhere close to objectivity; and if there are large groups of partisans who think they do, it's only because the tenor of the respective reporting coincides with their own, well, biases.

The News should not have a nationality.

Agreement here would be less widespread and/or vigorous, especially from conservatives, self-described "patriots," and others who, for example, still chafe at the multinational*** tone of Peter Arnett's coverage during Desert Storm. A "borderless" approach to news delivery has profound and far-reaching implications. It means, most conspicuously, that even an epochal event like 9/11 should not be reported as an absolute and inarguable tragedy, because it would not be received as such everywhere. After all, upon hearing of the terror attacks, citizens partied in the streets of Damascus, Tripoli and Tehran—just as Americans might party in the streets if we popped all of Al Qaeda leadership in one big whack-out. To paraphrase and extend Eugene O'Neill's savvy observation about the (deterministic) continuum of life, no event takes place solely in the present moment, but rather is a composite of all that has gone before. As in the case of a revenge killing over an ancient grievance, there is always a history that has shaped what is happening today, even if that history is generally unknown (or even unknowable). Which means that 9/11 did not begin or end on 9/11. Nor is it the journalist's job to report that history; that would be contextualizing, which journalists should never attempt unless they can be sure of doing a comprehensive job. And because that's impossible—even Mike Wallace wasn't around when the earth cooled, ineluctably setting in motion next week's playoff between the Eagles and Cards—it should never be attempted.

It is simply bad journalism to cover an explosion that kills 10 American GIs outside Tikrit differently from a raid on an Afghanistan cave that results in the death of 10 of the world's most fearsome anti-U.S. terrorists. Besides—as a practical matter—even if journalism upholds "Americanism"...whose would it be? The Left's? The Right's? Should journalism revere what America is now? What America aspires to be? According to whom? The problems are evident.

Just report what happened and where.

The News cannot and should not use existing law as the basis for its take on a story, because laws are transient, malleable and often arbitrary.

Journalism should never cover man's law as if it were eternal law (assuming any such thing exists), framing illegal activities as if they're objectively wrong or framing legal activities as if they're objectively right. (Lest we forget, Rosa Parks broke the law when she refused to give up her seat.) Historically, in fact, many might argue that journalism has proved to be most valuable when its reporting took a contrarian bent, opposing existing laws and policies. (I don't favor that, either, because journalism isn't supposed to take an active side in things, pro or con. Any changes that occur should occur "by accident," as a result of the public's response to what it hears and sees in the News. Journalists are simply conduits, providing information to a citizenry that will do what it believes needs doing with that information.)

The very foundation of American democracy, the U.S. Constitution, is itself elastic, open to interpretation and subject to amendment. And even the loftiest of ideals embedded in the Constitution and other founding documents are unproven. "All men are created equal"? It's a nice thought, and an uplifting premise for a culture...but its scientific validity remains moot.

Which brings us, finally, to:

The News should be amoral.

If by now our consensus on the aims of journalism has become somewhat fragile, this is where it really fractures. A lot of people have trouble with the proposition that journalism should not stand for good or evil, right or wrong. (Which, of course, means that journalism should not have causes.) Realize, for starters, that most political agendas are premised on notions of right or wrong; thus, morally tinged reporting too easily lends itself to political purposes. But it goes beyond that. To filter the news through a moral lens is to presume to know unerringly what the "correct" moral values are in the first place. Perhaps worse, in practical terms, news rooted in "social norms" inevitably tends to promote the notion that majority means validity. A news organization that builds its ethos around the values embraced by "most right-thinking people" is doomed from the start.

"Well wait just a damned second now!" you exclaim. [Hence the exclamation point.] "At the very least, journalism can safely uphold life over death! 'Thou shalt not kill' and all!" To which I would reply: You're kidding, right? We can't even agree as a society on whether "life" is the ultimate value. Think: abortion, capital punishment, right-to-die issues, wars. (We view the wars that we decide to wage as "just" and the loss of life that results as a "necessary evil" or "collateral damage." We forget that bin Laden felt similarly justified in attacking the World Trade Center.)

Clearly all loss of life is not equally tragic to all journalists, all everyday Americans, all Afghani warlords, all practicing physicians (who must make so-called "end life decisions") or anyone else. Thus we are left with the problem of deciding which deaths are "objectively" tragic and which aren't. Those are value judgments, and the media have no business making them. As soon as the journalist starts rationalizing, qualifying, parsing, hair-splitting or performing other ethical gymnastics in order to force-fit some types of death into this moral framework (but not others), he has abandoned objectivity and devolved into the realm of partisan politics and/or religion.

The objective newsperson must start from the premise that there is no absolute right or wrong, at least that we can all know and agree on. In the journalist's world, there is no justice or injustice. There are only events. From my point of view, it is never the media's job to tell us how to think or feel about a story, and it certainly isn't the media's job to "reflect traditional values." Slavery once was a traditional value. So was homophobia. So was the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. And on and on. And I'm not saying those things should be recognized as objectively wrong now. I'm saying that it's not the media's job to weigh in. In the end, the only workable approach is for the news media to project no values at all.

Nor can we turn to "God" for answers here, because the existence and nature of God are controversies unto themselves. Besides…whose God? Osama's? Jerry Falwell's? Joel Osteen's?

In the end, the media must learn to embrace, in practice, the catchy ethic that FOX news disingenuously preaches: We report, you decide. That's all there is to it.

* The piece was then republished in the print version, with slight alterations.
** Interestingly, or maybe sadly, enough, Goldberg then took a job as a FOX analyst and forswore any further pretense to objectivity. That doesn't necessarily taint his book, which was an outgrowth of a highly courageous column he wrote for The Wall Street Journal while still employed at network (CBS), and which I think stands on its merits. It just depresses me to see him trumpeting the party line night after night on O'Reilly or wherever. How does he not feel hypocritical?
*** Some prefer the word traitorous, and have never let Arnett (or his bosses) forget it. Here's a typical example.


roger o'keefe said...

I am honestly at a loss to understand what's gotten into you lately. Columns like this are a 180 degree turnaround from the strong stand you took on morals and absolute values in your own book. You can couch it any way you want and rationalize it so it sounds high-minded to some, but Steve I have to say, it sounds plainly un-American, if not anti-American, to me.

Dimension Skipper said...

Lofty ideals and I would agree in theory that at least the effort should be made by the media to try to be as objective and non-partisan as possible. But...

"Just report what happened and where."

Report EVERYTHING that happened EVERYWHERE? Not possible (imo).

They simply have to pick and choose what's noteworthy and of significance to the most people (or to their "perceived audience" or "target audience," but both phrases seem to me to betray an inherent bias, the latter more so than the former).

Once the media start doing triage on the so-called news stories of the day, how can there NOT be biases involved? Even relatively equivalent news items, but ones of significance to polar opposite audience members have to be reported in some order. Something has to be reported first, something else second, and so on.

All media is biased somehow and to some degree. At this point, I just accept that. I simply try to find the outlets that aren't so obvious about it, that at least seem to put forth an effort to report both or all sides of issues objectively, without emotional undertones betraying some agenda.

I think probably the best anyone can do is not just believe the first thing they see, hear, or read. Make sure that several significant news reporting services are in some sort of agreement before accepting their reported accounts.

In a related aside, I have to admit I have always had serious issues with any news publication that endorses a political candidate at any level. If they want to sumamrize what various candidates claim they stand for, what they've done, and what they say they'll do, fine. But actually picking one over another as the better candidate? I just don't see how that can be acceptable.

Lastly, an off-topic P.S....

I just want to say that the comments feed problem I mentioned a while back seems to have been corrected. Blogger.com still lists it as an ongoing issue, but for your blog at least, Steve, it seems to have cleared up and I can once again follow comments spread out over multiple posts here much more easily (via my customized iGoogle page). Just in case you were curious or would want to know...

Anonymous said...

Steve, you might find this interesting.


Adelaide Dupont said...

I would have said that the news should be 'morally neutral' rather than 'amoral' (the difference being a conscious versus unconscious stance which the journalist/editor takes).

I agree fully with the other two points about what the news media (mainstream and alternative) should be, and that the world cannot agree on life being important.

What do you think about commercialism as the driver of our stories? This is the thing that worries me most. Everything is not stories, it is now a press release from (say) a medical organisation.

Elizabeth said...

Roger: anti-American? Really?

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, I think you left off what is perhaps the most crucial standard for news organizations - they should never be structured as (or expected to be) profit centers. So long as the "news" is expected to draw the largest possible audience and ensuing high ad revenues, it will be inevitable that the reports aired, printed, and posted will be geared to appeal to whatever demographic is most likely to respond to the advertisers' content. And I think there'd be little argument about the political/ideological leanings of the NASCAR crowd, the big investor crowd, or the green movement.

While the qualities you describe are quite noble, and (I believe) should be the ultimate for which all news organizations shoot, there is really no such thing as a completely objective human on either side of the news desk. Thus, every aspect of journalism is going to be "tainted" by the inescapable subjectivity of the news gatherers, anchors, producers, station managers, editors, and yes, even the consumers. One need look no further than Roger's comment (and no, I'm not picking on you, Roger!) to observe that virtually everyone involved in the process has an agenda that they feel must be met. Until Spock and an army of Vulcans arrive to take over our news organizations, there will never be objective coverage. And even if they existed, showed up, and took over, the majority of people would tune them out altogether.

Sad? Nah... just human. I agree with DS - it's up to the consumer to wade through the offerings and see what rings true to our "objective" selves. Besides... who would be qualified to act as arbiter of all that is "objective?" Hell... I rarely trust *myself* top be objective! :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Again here I'm going to "opt out" for the short term and let others have at it, if they care to. Begging your indulgence, I will get back to any questions directed at me later on, in a kind of omnibus wrap-up comment. Besides, I think the post itself makes my feelings on the subject pretty clear. I do understand that some of these posts sound rather whimsical and Pollyannaish, and may not seem to have much to do with "the way it is." Still, a man's got to have a best-case goal, no?

Steve Salerno said...

Incidentally, I should mention that--for no reason that I can discern--we not merely broke but obliterated the all-time single-day record for SHAMblog "hits" this past Monday: just under 2500 unique visitors. That's not much by Huffington Post standards, but it kinda blew me away. And the oddest part is, I can't think of a single thing to explain it. Odder still, there were very few comments.

We've been way over the usual traffic ever since my piece on CAM ran in the WSJ, and we remain so today, though we've ebbed back a bit from Monday's stratospheric levels.

Anonymous said...

If news should not have a nationality and not use existing laws as the basis for its take on a story in addition to being amoral - then is illegal immigration not news worthy?

Does the distinction between illegal immigrants who snuck across the border and those who legally obtained H1-B visas disappear because the illegality aspect is now gone? Or is statism relegated to the trashbin because sovereignty no longer applies?

If existing laws are not a basis for the take on the news, then how can new regulations, laws and even Supreme Court rulings be considered news? Modifications to existing laws which impact our liberty, rights and responsibilities are certainly news.

I don't buy your premise. Steve. Furthermore, I don't think you do, either.

This reminds me of Monty Python's "Argument Clinic".

Steve Salerno said...


One grows weary.

I am talking about the tenor of the coverage, and the overtones with which reporters contextualize the news. I'm going to take time out on a very busy day to share a quick story that I've probably told before.

When I was just starting out in journalism I had the good fortune to share a conversation or three with the brilliant and, at least in magazine circles, legendary Harold Hayes. Best known for his editorial stewardship of Esquire during its halcyon days of the late 1960s and early ’70s, Hayes by the time I met him had fled one coast for the other, and was attempting to breathe new life into California Magazine. I'd written a few short pieces for California that he professed to like, which emboldened me to inflict upon him my naif's ruminations on writing, life, and the relationship between the two. Hayes showed astonishing forbearance. Usually.

One afternoon I was blustering about the excesses of what was then being called The New Journalism, which of course gave writers unprecedented license to interpret events through the lens of their own experiences. Finally, when he could stand it no more, Harold cut me off in mid-pontification.
"Steve," he said. "Consider a scenario where a lion mauls a small boy at the zoo and the cops have to come in and shoot the beast." If there were genuine objectivity, Harold continued, "the headline the next day would not read, 'Young boy tragically mauled at zoo.' It would be more like, 'Lion, boy, die at zoo.' "

That's what I'm talking about. I'm not saying we shouldn't report stuff. I'm saying we shouldn't render judgment on it as we report it.

Dimension Skipper said...

I guess what you're saying is there should be a "no spin zone?"


The very fact that anything gets reported at all implies, I think, a judgment of some kind and to some degree. But the nature of the reporting should be as factual and emotionally neutral as possible, not anecdotal and charged with "provocative" words, words that connote a value judgement or will likely cause an emotional reaction. (Of course, due to words being somewhat ephemeral, varying in meaning and connotation over time and with regional differences, avoiding ones that are more likely to trigger an emotional response can be problematic, not necessarily a 100% proposition no matter how hard one tries.)

Even the old concept of "seeing is believing" isn't necessarily free from such spin concerns. The ubiquitous cameras all around us are always capturing images of events, but often they get edited down and de-contextualized to the point we're just left with the widely circulated vid bite (as opposed to a sound bite). Audio may be stripped from the vid or may be indecipherable, but if the images are shocking enough, well, then "Run that baby!"

I recall a piece I saw on TV once (I forget now where or when) in which someone showed how hurricane coverage can be exaggerated in a visual way. There's the reporter (Weather Channel, I think) struggling valiantly against the wind, staggering this way and that while trying to get his words out on-camera. Then they showed the "behind-the-scenes" previously unaired context as the camera panned around to show the reporter was actually standing in an area between two buildings which gave a wind tunnel effect with debris shooting through and everything.

Was it a hurricane (or at least a tropical storm)? Yeah. But the location choice was (deliberately so) not really representative of the storm at hand. It was something of a visual lie. Once the reporter was done on camera, he simply moved a few feet to one side (still out in the relative open) and calmly chatted with the production people.

Basically, I think I know what you mean, Steve, but at the same time I also think your ideal is much harder to achieve than it might seem at a quick glance, especially in a modern blog-it, Twitter-it, Facebook-it as-you-go world such as ours where the emphasis more and more becomes speed (especially) and quantity rather than accuracy and quality.

I think maybe it's another variation of Schrödinger's cat with its inevitable verschränkung. The news is truly neither good nor bad, conservative nor liberal, etc., until it is observed and reported. After that it's much harder to separate the reporter (or even ourselves?) from the story. Especially when the reporter insists on taking/being given credit for the reportage in the first place). There's the paradoxical element.

A reporter wants to continue to make a living and so must make the effort to get his stories out there, being repeated, and presenting himself as the "best person for the job." But how can that be done while still keeping the reporting style low-key in a matter-of-fact (literally!) style? That's rehtorical. I'm not saying it can't be done, only that it can be tough.

(Which reminds me of one of my pet peeves... when news local news outlets hawk that they have an "Exclusive! It's a story you'll see only on [mumble-mumble] at 11." Sometimes it may even be of some specialized interest to me, but usually my reaction is, "Well, if it was really important, it wouldn't be exclusive, now, would it? Everyone would be reporting it.")

Oh well, to sum up my rambling (finally!)... Like many things in life it seems to me to come down to being a matter of (subjective) degree. It's the ol' "diff'rent strokes" saw as far as peoples' perceptions (both the news reporters and the news consumers).

Yes, I see definite verschränkung.

I hope that all makes some sort of sense. Sometimes it's hard to tell when composing a longer comment and I've ended up having to scroll back and forth just trying to remind myself of whatever point I originally started trying to make in (in any one paragraph or overall). Even checking the full view "preview" of the comment doesn't always help me.

Anonymous said...

Excellent simple example Steve.

And for the non American, Roger, can you explain what is un-American about the ideas in this post?


Steve Salerno said...

DS: Personally, I always thought Shrodinger's cat was more like Shrodinger's bull, and actually worked to undermine any lay understanding of QM. We may perceive the cat as "both dead and alive" for the purpose of our feeble human interpolations, but in the absolute universal sense, the cat is definitively either dead or alive. (Did anyone ever ask the cat?)

Anonymous said...

'I don't buy your premise. Steve. Furthermore, I don't think you do, either.'

I don't either, and Monty Python is superbly illustrative of what often passes for debate here.
SHAMblog, of course, is an exemplar of objective reportage, with no hidden agenda.


Steve Salerno said...

I'm not a newscaster, people. This is a blog. A blog with an agenda. I didn't say there is no place for opinion/agenda anywhere in America. I said the news should not have an opinion/agenda, if at all possible.

Get over yourselves. You are not quite as clever as you think.

Elizabeth said...

I hope that all makes some sort of sense.

Yes, it does, DimSkip. And it's enjoyable to follow, too.

roger o'keefe said...

Londoner: As Steve often says, I think the blog speaks for itself.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I think the blog speaks for itself."

As do some responses. I, for one, haven't seen anything un-American, much less anti-American in Steve's post, Roger. I hesitated asking before because I didn't want you to think I was breathlessly awaiting an opportunity to challenge you, as you've accused me of doing in the past. Like Londoner, I'm curious as to what you read that we've apparently missed.

Anonymous said...

Is it that you can't be an American without being Christian, and therefore already have a morality and viewpoint?

I only ask because I'm in the middle of an argument on another blog where a particular American Christian women doesn't believe that its hard to work out who killed more people - the Christians or the Muslims?

Please take no offence to the above - its really meant for my education!


Steve Salerno said...

Londoner: I think there's a lot to that. As it happens, I'm working on a piece now, for Skeptic, about the underpinnings of American law, and the fact that, because of 2000 years of Judeo-Christian tradition, we take our notions of crime and the associated punishments as "givens." We don't really think about whether the punishments fit the crime, and/or whether certain things that are not crimes are actually worse (i.e. more serious breaches of the social contract) than things that are formally designated crimes. (F'rinstance: Which is worse--to steal a six-pack of beer from 7-Eleven once? Or to yell at your kids every day? One is a crime, the other is not.) So, though I don't really have time today to address your question in greater depth, I would certainly be eager to hear what anyone else thought.

Dimension Skipper said...

I don't necessarily agree with the need for this proposal (see article link and quote below) as I think good ol' "common sense" should be sufficient, but I also recognize that it's often not.

In my iGoogle science feeds the headline for this article appeared as "Commentary: Don't believe everything you read (online)." That seemed quite non-revelatory to me, but I was curious as to the specifics so I clicked on through to the piece. There I found a more mundane headline of...

Universities should audit information on the web
By A. C. Grayling for NewScientist

Although it talks about the internet in general and judging some sites to be more accurate and worthwhile than others, I believe the same general concerns apply to more traditional media news sources as well...

Before the internet can be confidently used as an educational tool, however, some of its more serious problems must be addressed, chief among them the unreliability of so much of the information it contains.

. . . .

The lesson is that to make best use of the internet as an educational resource, its content has to be audited for reliability, and a system of classification introduced. Given that the internet is already the main resource for students, the need is urgent. I suggest that an international consortium of universities should set up panels to audit the worth of websites, endorsing those that are reliable. They should not censor, nor comment on matters of opinion - the price we pay for the internet's open democracy is the rubbish it contains. But they should authoritatively identify worthwhile sites, and warn of factual error when it occurs. Without such expert monitoring, the internet will increasingly be a problem rather than a boon, and limited in educational value.

Dimension Skipper said...

OK, I see that as I feared and suspected I didn't include that link the first time... Sorry 'bout that, but glad I corrected the oversight.

The good news though (and possibly the most ulitmate news ever if it eventually pans out?) is that that mistake and issues of news coverage, American Idol dreams being dashed, etc.... none of that may really matter. (Physics pun very much intended!)

It's not anywhere near an official theory yet, just the beginning stages of a wild idea, but...

Our world may be a giant hologram
By Marcus Chown for NewScientist 15 (January 2009)


Even if I can't really understand such things I've always found "out there" concepts like that fascinating. Maybe it's still just a fancy and complex way of framing determinism. I have no idea.

Ultimately, does the underlying form of the universe matter? I have no idea. I'm just happy if I can find the TV remote most days.

In the comments underneath the article there's mention of a certain theoretical cat. Oh, and Steve, I basically agree with you about that darned cat, but I still thought the analogy or basic concept was apt as I related it to the news stuff (though as always I could be wrong).

Elizabeth said...

Ultimately, does the underlying form of the universe matter? I have no idea. I'm just happy if I can find the TV remote most days.

Oh, yes, those small pleasures that make our lives so meaningful... :)

OK, the below is somewhat off-topic here and somewhat not, but this is good stuff, taking us back (and forth :) to our discussions on science and faith, and specifically that infamous discussion in May (and my [ill-received, but well-intentioned] comment on Steve's and everyone else's cognitive dissonance in the matter):

God and Science: An Inner Conflict

Robin Lloyd

God and science are inherently at odds, or so goes the story with roots that reach back nearly 400 years to the Inquisition's trial of Galileo on suspicion of heresy.

The ongoing effort of U.S. creationists to inject doubt about evolution into science classrooms in public schools is an example of that conflict, not to mention the polarizing arguments over the decades offered by numerous members of the clergy, politicians, and some atheist scientists and scholars including Richard Dawkins.

Now a new study suggests our minds are conflicted, making it so we have trouble reconciling science and God because we unconsciously see these concepts as fundamentally opposed, at least when both are used to explain the beginning of life and the universe.

But what is the source of this seeming "irreconcilable difference" - are we hard-wired for it, or is it tenacious cultural baggage?

The experiments

Experiments headed up by psychologist Jesse Preston of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and her colleague Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago provide some data to support the argument that the conflict is inherent, or hard-wired.

Full text:

P.S. The best cats are theoretical, IMO.

P.S.2. WV: ousic. (Oh, you're sick!) ;)

Dimension Skipper said...

Hmm, I know I quickly posted a followup comment between those last two with the corrected link that article about internet sources, but I don't know why it didn't turn up. This is just another stab at putting the correct link through, though really I quoted the most relevant two paragraphs...

Universities should flag up which websites to trust
By A.C. Grayling for NewScientist (14 January 2009)