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.


1 comment:

Christina said...

No, I personally don't think that the media is biasing the public against the press because, the media thrives off of the publics lives and stories. So in a sense we are doing this to ourselves. Even if there was not media, our society would still be very troubled.