1 Broken Scooter, 4 Iron Cots, 1 Used Ford, 3 Cats, and 1 Small Room

Yet another Self-Important Blog.

Rohit Singh
Email Me

Use as directed or at your own risk.

These are a few of my favourite links.

Commenting and Trackback by HaloScan.com


Sat, 20 Nov 2004

Aiming for balance in media coverage

So a couple weeks ago Slashdot pointed to this Columbia Journalism Review article which discussed how, in trying to provide balanced reporting on controversial issues, the media actually makes things worse by accentuating fringe opinions and toning down majority opinions. This is especially the case when the overwhelming evidence/majority favors one side of the issue but there is a vocal fringe that advocates the other side. In the interest of providing a balanced perspective on the problem, articles (or t.v. shows) give equal (or almost equal) weightage to both the sides, in effect magnifying the real influence of the fringe. Why do they not make the effort to be more fair and even-handed? Well, essentially because journalists either do not want to be seen as pushing a particular viewpoint or simply do not have the intellect/willingness to understand the entire issue, assess the relative support for the varying takes, and then present it fairly.

The canonical example for this would be the theory of evolution. Most people with half a brain and half an hour can look at the evidence and see that there really is a lot of support for the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution is one of the most successful theories in science. It is so strongly supported by the data and explains/predicts so many phenomena that it is one of the central tenets of biology. Yet, creationists always want to press the view that all life evolved in a giant poof--- as God's Giant Magic Trick.

The case for global-warming is also strong. The build-up of the ozone layer (and it's recent shrinking, due to less pollution), the steady decrease in the Arctic ice-shelf's size etc. and simple temparature measurements provide a strong justification. The opposing argument that this is all just a minor weather change is less specious that the creationist argument but, nonetheless, it is much much weaker than the global-warming theory.

Still, as the article I mentioned before points out, newspapers often cover these theories (esp global warming) in a way that doesn't emphasize that these theories are by far the most plausible, as judged by most experts. There are always all sorts of fringe elements and crackpots who have a different take on a theory. Instead of actually researching the issue and giving a fair take, most journalists take the cheap way of being fair--- simply balance the inches devoted to the two sides. Thus, all the crackpots get undue exposure and attention. And give ammunition to vested interests for saying that this is "just a theory, there are other theories too". And then those interests proceed to pick the theory that suits them best.

Of course, the most hot-button example of the media's inept coverage of controversial issues would be the coverage of Bush administration's case for war. Even when the reports of the arms inspectors had come in, the Bush administration flirted with the truth, trying to hint (but never actually *say*) that either the weapons could've been there or that Saddam Hussein was helping Osama Bin Laden. While covering this, NYT and Washington Post headlines used words like "exaggerate" and "flimsy" and "un-truths" to indicate their disbelief. But they never actually went ahead and said, in so many words, that "Bush Lied". Similary, none of them made any attempts to explicitly state that "Saddam Hussein was not involved with Osama Bin Laden". I can understand why the media didn't want to go out on a limb and explicitly say that 'the administration is not just passively fudging the truth, it's actively encouraging misconceptions': (1) they wanted to be evenhanded between pro-war and anti-war people, (2) if they had, people would've said they are taking sides and just being "liberal".

And that justification is a load of bullshit. After all, if 70% of Americans continued to believe that Iraq had something to do with 9/11, isn't it the job of media to disabuse the public of those notions ? Especially since that notion was directly responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans? It is a shame that the editors of the Great Newspapers of America are so afraid of calling a spade a spade.

[/rants-and-raves] | | | permalink