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News biases make good business but bad journalism

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 6:39 a.m. CDT, Monday, September 28, 2009

I was recently confronted with a “Hey, did you know?” question to which the honest reply would have been, “No, I didn’t.”

What I didn’t know, apparently, was that Al Franken, D-Minn., stole his election to the Senate. Franken, you might recall, beat Republican Norm Coleman by a hair in November and then had to wait out a six-month legal challenge before taking his seat.

I knew for a fact only three things about the Franken-Coleman contest: There was the usual chin-stroking over the integrity of the recount; Coleman took a beating in the courtroom; and a lot of conservatives were offended that a former comedy writer and liberal commentator challenged a Republican incumbent and had the temerity to win.

Beyond that, I admit, I had no idea what happened in Minnesota. Nonetheless, when my interlocutor insisted it was common knowledge that an act of electoral theft had been perpetrated, I replied, without missing a beat, “That’s not true.”

I’m not going to re-argue the Franken-Coleman recount or attempt to prove to you that I’m correct about the outcome. That would require mining the journalistic record for the most learned and evenhanded coverage. I’ve already done that, and I’m here to tell you it was a waste of time — nothing was going to convince my antagonist that Franken beat Coleman fair and square.

And there’s a good chance you wouldn’t accept my evidence either.

According to a recent study released by The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, nearly two out of three Americans — 67 percent — don’t trust journalists to get their facts straight. That’s approaching a 180-degree turnabout since Pew published the first of its biennial “Public Evaluation of the News Media” in 1985; back then, only 34 percent said they couldn’t always believe what they read and heard in the news.

Widespread distrust is certainly a problem for journalism. But is journalism the problem? Of course; but readers and viewers, many of whom are unwilling to accept news that conflicts with their view of the world, must share the blame — and, more importantly, be part of the solution.

Consider the good news in the Pew study: People seem to trust the journalism they are closest to — their local TV stations and daily newspapers.

This is good to know. People rely on local media to help them navigate issues that actually mean something every day — taxes, public safety, the new housing project up the street. Quality of life is what people think about when they aren’t watching FOX News or reading The New York Times. That a majority of people believe local news outlets are worthy partners in the pursuit-of-happiness business says something good about them and about journalism.

I’m not sure where to begin with the national news media, except with the worn observation that it has done a great job of confusing people about journalism.

What can viewers make of a cable network that debunks the “birther” movement in a news report then, in the next hour, broadcasts a show devoted to “exploring” the baseless charge that Barack Obama was born in Kenya? What must readers think of a national newspaper that admits its television critic is so error-prone she needs a personal editor? She may be a television critic, but she works — still — for an organization hailed as the “paper of record.”

Those are just two recent examples of how journalism fails to live up to its own ideals. Along with many others, large and small, they do more than cause people to question the reliability of the news.

In the 2007 book “What Good is Journalism?,” MU professors George Kennedy and Glen Cameron published their research into public “perceptions of and experience with journalism.” After talking to 495 people, they concluded, “the relationship between Americans and journalism is a complicated mix of appreciation, dependence, anger and distrust.”

Again, this is a problem for journalism. But is journalism the problem?

Consider how this “complicated mix” might explain journalism’s biggest liability — the perception of bias.

It might if, like me, you’ve noticed that many people fail to make the distinction among news, commentary and outright provocation. It might if, like me, you’ve noticed that discussions about current events are often less about the news and more about who reported it.

This was inevitable. The national news media commit acts of quality journalism more often than we admit. But news organizations also exploit the human tendency to construct our own individual reality by playing to the biases of their audience. It’s been good for business but bad for journalism.

Implicit in studies like the Pew Center’s is the question of what can be done. Journalists have taken steps, such as being more transparent about how they gather the news and why they think it’s important. They’re also listening more to their readers and viewers.

That’s a start. But shouldn’t readers and viewers step it up a notch as well? Perhaps by accepting that the purpose of journalism is not to tell you what you want to hear? After all, you need it: Of the people Kennedy and Cameron talked to, 75 percent said journalism helped them think about and understand public issues.

And, as the Pew Center points out in its analysis of local media, you know when it’s being done right.

Brian Wallstin is a Columbia resident and a former city editor for the Missourian. E-mail him at bwallstin@gmail.com.


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Comments

Mark Foecking September 23, 2009 | 4:42 a.m.

News has become entertainment. With all of the competing outlets for news trying to keep up market share, the outlet that has the most exciting and controversial stories will often be the one that gets the most advertising dollars.

The Enquirer continues to be a very popular "paper", even though no one would seriously suggest them as a bastion of factual reporting.

DK

(Report Comment)
Robert craig September 24, 2009 | 10:35 a.m.

This is a good indication, in my opinion of why some media outlets are having trouble. The inclination is to point to the stupidity of the end-user. I am perfectly capable of understanding the difference between news and commentary.
I won't rehash the Franken Affair, suffice it to say I disagree with the intimation above.
I haven't forgetten about the lopsided coverage during elections, the
media unwillingness to truly investigate a democrat, their failure to
denote a democrat when they're in trouble vs loudly broadcasting a republican... I also recall on a NEWS program the recent info-mercial for Obama's health plan by CBS, or worse... Dan Rather-gate.

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote September 24, 2009 | 1:16 p.m.

I think that the distrust of media stems from our notions of media bias. Until recently, the Right has led the charge in proclaiming media bias against their ideological positions. Those on the opposite end of the spectrum have quite a different perspective, and have become more vocal in voicing their opinions on the subject. Each side feels their positions are judged more critically than the others. Since it is a rather subjective question, that is how fairly a certain position is represented in news stories, it is difficult to determine which ideology is treated more fairly. I think a more quantifiable means of judging media bias is to assess in aggregate the public's misinformation on certain topics. When a sizable percentage of the public holds views that are empirically incorrect, I would think that is a strong indication of either media bias or, to be generous, the media performing poorly in reporting on a specific news story. I'd be interested to see what examples people come up with both on the Right and the Left.

(Report Comment)
Brian Nitsllaw September 28, 2009 | 8:04 p.m.

Al Franken is just one more Hard Left Liberal Democrat who admittedly cheated on his taxes (to the tune of $70,000); who was fined $25,000 for not insuring his employees for worker’s compensation over a 3 year period; and who lied about a long delinquent $875,000 loan, endorsed by Franken alone, to bolster his failing Air America. Apparently Al Franken thought that loan was more important to Air America than those poor Bronx kids who attended the Boys and Girls Club whence the money came. Because of that loan delinquency, the club ended up losing its affiliation with Boys & Girls Club of America.
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What say you, Senator Franken?? Cue the Crickets sound.

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Al Franken may not be big and fat, but he's more petty then pretty, more cheating than chubby, and beyond the shadow of a doubt, a cheapskate liar who will condone any action that will better his position.
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But, that's not what this piece is about; or is it???
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How close would the election have been if Franken were NOT endorsed by ACORN? How close would it be if ACORN had not registered 43,000 votes, or 75% of all new registered voters for the 2006 election? How close would Al Franken be if the liberal press weren't in the tank for Obama and his coattails? And just for fun, how close would Franken be, if DEAD people didn't invariably vote DEMOCRAT? Cue Michael Jackson's Thriller!
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Why would Soros purposely back Secretary of State elections if he had no plans of manipulating them?
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With all due respect to the fine people of Minnesota, is this the type, the character, the brand Minnesotans would choose if they knew better??

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I doubt most Liberals other than Brian Wallstin think that "fair and square" now includes:
1) if you raise more money than your opponent, after the election to pay for recount lawyers, you can out-litigate your opponent to win office.
2) there can be more votes than voters in some precincts.
3) it’s not how the votes are counted on election day, it’s how the votes are selectively counted by a candidiate's lawyers after the election.
4) Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who was also endorsed by “non-partisan” ACORN, and supported by Soros-funded Secretary of State Project, orchestrated the recount.
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Brian, nobody really cares, other than myself, if I don't reveal my name. My ideas stand on their own strength, and as what they are, an independent opinion.
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Suffice it to say you've proven more than once a publicly identified figure can not attach their identity to yours without some potentially unearned cost. Please note: your editor has invited that my comments may remain anonymous, and until he states otherwise, I'll assume that invitation remains unaltered. Show you are more than any other thin-skinned, tin horn crybaby. Please use facts instead of bias.

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