Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Is media biasing the public against the press?

A recent poll of media credibility conducted by Sacred Heart University found that the American people are losing faith in their journalists at an alarmingly rapid pace.

In the current national poll, just 19.6% of those could say they believe all or most news media reporting. This is down from 27.4% in 2003. It should be noted that this segment of the public ranked Fox News, known for its Republican spinsters, the most accurate news provider.  

Does the public have it wrong or should we trust their lack of trust? Are they perceiving bias in the news because the media is biasing the public against journalists?

The erosion of public confidence in journalism is old news, some may say, but perhaps we need to examine factors that influence public perception of ineptitude in journalism, says Roy Peter Clark, Senior Scholar at the Poynter Institute. 

"The public bias against the press is a more serious problem for American democracy that the bias (real or perceived) the press itself," he writes in a recent article "The Public Bias Against the Press." 

"I hold journalists less responsible -- and the public more responsible -- for misperceptions of news media performance. In short, the last two decades have seen unprecedented attacks upon the legitimacy of the news media, so many messages from so many directions that they are as impossible to ignore as, say, the soft-core sexual images that pervade American culture."

The media itself  perpetuates popular myths that journalists are scum, parasites that leech onto the likes of Britney Spears and Heath Ledger, at the expense of more positive, less popular, portrayals of journalists fighting doggedly in the name of public interest. 

And just how is the media implicated in biasing the public? By confusing people.

"Journalism expresses itself through media, but most media expressions are not forms of journalism," reminds Clark.

Take for instance, the seemingly harmless romantic comedy 27 Dresses. Like many formulaic flicks of this genre, it features a familiar Shakespearian trope -- a woman and man hit it off, the man somehow screws up and then there is the inevitable reconciliation at the end. 

Tack onto this the fact that the leading man is a sleazy reporter for the "Commitments" section of the fictional New York Journal.  He needs a killer story to rise above his beat -- wedding reporter hell. He decides a scathing expose of a woman who has been a bridesmaid 27 times is his ticket out.

Although it is only a lighthearted comedy, 27 Dresses solidifies notions  in the popular imagination that the underhanded journalist can't be trusted with your privacy.

The "journalist" here commits countless ethical breaches, with no foresight or questioning of his tactics, and --true to Hollywood -- breaks hearts along the way to get his story. His first breach is using a pseudonym. Anonymity -- a tactic usually reserved for the most dire of circumstances (read: not a wedding expose) -- has questionable ethics written all over it.  He then deceives his source about the nature of his story, takes pictures of her under false pretenses and proceeds to libel her sister on the front page of the Style section.

Not only do movies like this (see a role reversal in 2003's How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days) engrain stereotypes about women, romance and relationships, they irresponsibly convey that journalists cannot be trusted, that they forsake the public interest, responsibility to their sources and readers, and ethical principles to get  a "scoop" on even the most mundane of stories.

Gone are the days when journalists were portrayed as trusted sources of news, purveyors of the public interest and crusaders for the people. And it is the media itself that has perpetuated the most derogatory of stereotypes about journalists.

Noble portrayals of journalists like All the Presidents Men and more recently, The Insider have been replaced by popular media images and Hollywood portrayals where journalists scheme and connive to get their stories. "The usual shtick is that they are slimeballs or part of the wolf pack that runs up the courthouse steps with notebooks and microphones extended," writes Clark.

Ironically, while the essence of journalism is the practice of verification, the entertainment media seems to overlook verification in the accounts of journalism they portray to the public.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Watching the watchdogs

Reporting in the era of  new media means the facts, the news, and the truth are continually refreshed.

Imagine a world where correcting an error is part of the daily process of compiling a story, where journalists are no longer shunned for recognizing a mistake and instead present their work to the public for collaborative fact-checking. In this world, everyone is an editor, and we are all independent monitors of the fourth estate.

This is the world imagined by Craig Silverman, the media-savvy mind responsible for the innovative site Regret the Error, an online monitor of minute-by-minute corrections in news outlets across the globe. The site links to tools like the Good the Bad and the Ugly, Reuters forum for reader feedback, and the San Francisco Chronicle's podcast Correct Me if I'm Wrong

In his new book "Regret the Error," Silverman argues that, "in this media era, people expect stories and information to be constantly updated; the correction is, in essence, a form of update, albeit one that addresses past error rather than breaking news. Corrections must not be ghettoized or hidden or perceived as punishment; rather, they should be part of the job of reporting and editing."

The world of journalism 2.0 opens new opportunities for news outlets to increase transparency, accuracy and public interaction. 

But before we can expect better accuracy and constant corrections, the mainstream media needs a mentality makeover-- a shift toward recognizing and incorporating the inevitability of human error in journalism, in which reporters are not afraid to publicly acknowledge their fallibility.  

Some news organizations, like, the New York Times and the Toronto Star have already entered a world where online corrections are considered the norm in a mediascape of continuous reporting. 

These outlets allow readers to alert editors to any errors in stories and editors amend the story after a thorough fact check. This interaction facilitates one of the fundamental functions of the press --creating a forum for public discourse.

"The press can no longer hide its mistakes and errors, and journalists can no longer go about their daily work sequestered from their readers and the public at large," writes Silverman. "In a time of unprecedented news options for consumers, they will inevitably flock toward the sources they feel are the most trustworthy, the most accurate."

A world where corrections and transparency are the norm could refresh public faith in journalism because the public is watching  the watchdogs -- and everyone benefits from the dialogue.  

Thursday, January 17, 2008

CRTC rulings

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission this week released a set of new policies addressing last year's media and diversity hearings.

The decisions, which apply only to private broadcasters, decree that:
  • a person or entity will only be permitted to control two of the following types of media that serve the same market: a local radio station, a local television station or a local newspaper (that's two types, not two papers, a major distinction newspaper giants like Canwest)
  • one party can't control more than 45 per cent of the total television audience share as a result of a transaction
  • the CRTC will not approve transactions between companies that distribute television services (such as cable or satellite companies) that would result in one person effectively controlling the delivery of programming in a market
These rulings might seem monumental, but as as Marc Edge observed on, they merely preserve the status quo for Canada's current media conglomerates.

Canadian journalists and audiences are still sussing out what these rulings really mean, and next week, journalism professor Kim Kierans will explain it all on Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Shedding a tear for lost ethics

With the American presidential primary races heating up usually frosty January political coverage, some of the front runners, exhausted from months already spent campaigning, are showing signs of emotional melting.

Although they may prove to be some of the fiercest rivals in the race to the White House, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have shared at least one very personal thing -- public tears.

So why is it that Hillary's tears -- or lack thereof -- have attracted the most attention in the media?

She is the only female front runner in the history of U.S presidential politics.

Clinton bears a disproportionate burden in her campaign. She must find a balance that no man is expected to, between showing she is "human," and not appearing too "emotional."

After a misty-eyed answer at a campaign stop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire Monday, in which her voice cracked as she described her passion for politics, headlines shouting the news that "Hillary Wept," swept the nightly news, just a day before she usurped the New Hampshire primary from the night's expected victor, Barack Obama.

Network pundits dwelled on these tears as if they had single-handedly solved the Middle East peace crisis. Bloggers specualated on whether they were real. Perhaps most alarming is that many pundits overtly ascribe Hillary's victory in New Hampshire Tuesday with her public display of emotion.

As Emily Krone points out in a Daily Herald article, "it's unclear what Clinton's show of emotion says about her or her candidacy. But the media and public frenzy surrounding the display says something very definitive about American society, and persisting stereotypes about women and leadership."

Renowned feminist Gloria Stenheim recently wrote an Op-ed in the New York Times condemning the media for the double burden they place on the only female candidate in the race.

"What worries me is that [Obama] is seen as unifying by his race while she is seen as divisive by her sex," she says.

But there are more reasons to lament the media's coverage of the race between "the black man" and "the white woman." By casting candidates in racial and gender stereotypes, the media continues to frame the campaigns in terms of essentialist notions that have nothing to do with how either candidate might govern the most powerful country in the world.

Instead, American news outlets are perpetuating a divisive type of identity politics, forcing voters to draw allegiances based on one dimensional characteristics, and in turn, perpetuating a "dumbing down" of the electorate.