Identifying A Central Problem with So-Called ‘Objective’ Media and Research

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You can’t report ‘both sides’ and be ‘accurate.’ It’s a fallacy –

By Glynn Wilson –

This morning and this week I feel a little bit like Ernest Hemingway as depicted in the movie “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” based on his life there. That is to say I am having trouble writing a lede sentence to a new story. This is often called writer’s block, which is often depicted as a psychological condition.

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In his case he was standing in front of a typewriter depressed trying to write about his true love. We recently watched this movie through Netflix. In my case it is different. I don’t need counseling from a psychiatrist for this condition. It’s just that there is so much flotsam and jetsam floating past in the sea of stories on social media and being dumped overboard by the mainstream media that if I was a fisherman, I think I would just go fishing and say to hell with it.

In case you are not familiar with the maritime terms, according to NOAA, flotsam is debris in the water that was not deliberately thrown overboard, often as a result from a shipwreck. Jetsam describes debris that was deliberately thrown overboard by a crew of a ship in distress, maybe to lighten the load. The word flotsam derives from the French word floter, to float. Jetsam is a shortened word for jettison.

Maybe I’m thinking in marine terms because I’m spending the winter on the Gulf Coast. But the stuff I’m watching float by on my computer screen looks mostly like junk, either marine debris thrown overboard or lost at sea. The entire media landscape looks like a shipwreck to me.

Besides, I am sitting around waiting on some people to respond to my questions on certain stories, while at the same time being inundated by emails from people who want me to run their stories either for money or for free. There seems to be lots of people out there now getting paid to “place” stories on news websites and blogs. Some act like they are doing me a favor by offering this service. Others seem willing to pay me to run their public relations, or PR for short.

Sponsored Content

Most big name news outlets now run this sort of stuff, referred to explicitly or in-explicitly as “Sponsored Content.”

Admittedly this is tempting, since we could use more content running through our interface — and we could use the money. But how would ever be able to look our readers in the face and claim we are a credible news outlet if we give in to these requests?

Other people like to send me messages on Facebook Messenger soliciting my comments on this story and that, as if I had all the time in the world to express myself in private messages to individuals one at a time? We are at least trying to be in the business of mass communicating, not communicating one on one.

Then there are those who want us to investigate this problem and that story, often very localized stories, but they expect us to do this for free, like we’ve got all the resources in the world to go here and there and investigate every little story?

On top of those problems, I can’t seem to type a sentence without my dog harassing me to play ball or wanting more food or to go outside and pee or poop.

But those are my problems. Not yours.

Credible News

If you are here at all, you are looking for news, credible news, produced with some writing flare by a journalist with some education and experience. You can’t be here simply for the sensational clickbait, since we publish so little of it.

So let me share a couple of links to a couple of news stories I’m looking at now about public trust in the press and point out the problems. That would seem to be a public service we can perform here.

As you may already know from following us for years or at least months, we are on the email list of the Gallup polling firm. One of my specialities is covering public opinion research, something I have real experience doing myself as well as covering, something I consider to be important in a democracy. All the political criticism of polling aside, we need to know what the public is thinking in a democracy to better form public policy.

So there is a story out this week under the headline: Both Sides of the (Political) Aisle Agree: The Media Is a Problem.

Public Distrust of Media

Yes, that’s right. The American public has a problem with the media these days, as well as social media.

I could just write my own version of this story and summarize the findings and skip all the commentary. The fact is, however, I have a major problem with the way this research is conducted and framed. No, I am not going to defend the press, at least not the printed press, a.k.a. the mainstream media, the corporate media, the legacy media, pick your choice of names.

In fact this research is not designed to critic the press. It is paid for by the big news outfits basically as market research, to see what the public is thinking about them so they can make adjustments to their capitalist business models.

Just take a look at the lede sentence on this story.

“A recent Knight Foundation/Gallup report on Americans’ perceptions of the media and its role in democracy contains many alarming findings for those who work in the media, and for Americans concerned about the relationship between a free press and the public.”

Why would the concerns of news workers be placed before the public concerns?

For some pretty good reasons, this research shows that “Americans are much more likely to say the media supports our democracy ‘very poorly’ or ‘poorly’ (43%) as to say it supports democracy “very well” or “well” (28%).” In other words, 28 percent of people say the so-called “media” — all lumped together — is doing a poor job in carrying out it’s First Amendment charge in this democracy, whether you consider it to be a socialist democracy or a capitalist republic. Either way, the press is falling down on the job, according to 43 percent of the people.

So people are not confident in the press these days, or broadcast media outlets, but this research does very little to flesh out which ones and why.

Because this research is in large part paid for by the big media companies, and it is based on many years of previous research designed to measure how well they are doing, a major glitch in the research design is perpetuated year after year.

The crux of the problem is apparent, at least to me, in the next two sentences.

“Less than half of Americans (44%) say they can name an objective news source. And only 27% feel very confident in their ability to distinguish factual news from opinion.”

Do you see it? The problem?

What Is Objectivity?

How are Gallup and Knight defining what “an objective news source” is? How are members of the public defining it when they answer the flawed question?

It should be easy to tell the difference in “factual news” v. “opinion,” especially if you are reading a newspaper in print or online where news is labeled as news and opinion is housed in an editorial opinion section.

Of course this picture has become muddy with online blogs that are pretty much all opinion, and with large swaths of readers only willing to read material with which they already agree.

The partisan divide in American politics many years ago began to matriculate into news reading and viewing habits. This is a problem for the big media companies since their capitalist business models were developed in the 20th century based on the central idea that they could profit from getting readers on “both sides” to pay for and consume their products, which also made them appealing to advertisers. The mass circulation newspaper chains were billed as “non-partisan” and “family friendly.”

The Associated Press became the standard bearer of this kind of news, where reporters sought out the most extreme sources on “both sides” of any story. There always had to be a conservative Republican commenter and a liberal Democrat commenter, so that the newspapers and broadcast news stations could claim they were covering “both sides.”

With the rise of 24-hour cable news, this problem became even more exaggerated, and there is little doubt this business model helped create the partisan divide and ultimately over time make it worse.

Fox News

Then Fox News came along and made it even worse still, by slanting the news not just in a conservative Republican direction but in a nationalistic, pro-American direction. It even adopted the slogan “fair and balanced” and pretended to cover both sides in a way most everybody knew was not really “objective” in any real sense.

Then the partisan bloggers came along and made it worse, and now social media has taken this to radical extremes. People are huddling up in specialized Facebook groups only willing to read and comment on things they not only already agree with in general. One slight wording in a headline or a paragraph they don’t like and they go off the reservation and block the writer. They have to agree 100 percent with everything you say. These groups have names like “STRONGER TOGETHER ( LIBERAL COALITION FORUM )” and “LIKE MINDED: LOWER ALABAMA DEMOCRATS).”

Just try posting something they don’t like, anything that might report “both sides” and see what happens. You will be banished faster than a piece of flotsam lost over a waterfall, never to be seen or heard from ever again.

Public Opinion Research

But according to Gallup and Knight, while “these trends in Americans’ confidence in the media, especially when viewed over time, are troubling, if not downright depressing (for news workers, not the public) … there is some positive news. There are four notable areas of consensus found in the report that could present a path forward for the media (not the public).”

1. The vast majority of Americans agree that the media plays an integral role to democracy. Eighty-four percent say that the media is either “critical” or “very important” to our democracy, mainly for making sure Americans have the knowledge they need to be informed about public affairs, as well as for holding leaders in all sectors accountable for their actions. Although the media receives poor marks, Americans still view the media as important.

(Interpretation: So now if only they could only get people to pay for a digital subscription and keep consuming their two-sided news, all would be right with their world).

2. Americans of all political stripes see the spread of inaccurate information on the internet as a major problem, with 76% of Republicans, 71% of Democrats and 75% of independents holding this view. These data suggest there is broad support in the U.S. for some method of reducing inaccuracy in online media reporting.

(Interpretation: So now if only they could only get people to pay for a digital subscription and keep consuming their two-sided news, all would be right with their world).

3. Nearly six in 10 Americans (57%) believe major websites using algorithms to select some news stories and excluding others based on past history is a major problem for democracy. Party affiliation does not temper this sentiment, as 60% of Republicans, 54% of Democrats and 58% of independents consider news aggregators’ pre-selection of stories a major problem. Americans are concerned that passive story selection prevents readers from seeing stories from a wide array of sources.

(This is not a problem for the press or the media. It is a problem for Facebook, although the research and the reporting on it do not make this clear. The upshot is news publishers may be able to exploit peoples’ distrust of Facebook to bolster their business models).

The next section is the worst problem with the Gallup report. See if you can spot the problem.

4. Seven in 10 Americans (71%) say they receive a mix of liberal and conservative viewpoints from their media exposure. Only 16% report getting all or most of their news from liberal sources, and 12% report receiving all or most news from conservative sources. Given that 60% of Americans say it is a major problem to choose news sources that solely reflect one’s point of view, the good news is that most Americans say they avoid this problem by getting news from both sides of the ideological spectrum.

I asked for the research firm to reveal one piece of information about those who responded to this question, how many and what percentage consider Fox News to be an “objective” news source. It took a couple of days to get a response, but here are the numbers.

“Majorities of conservative (55%) and very conservative (58%) adults who believe there is an objective news source identify Fox News as that source.

While no one with a journalism education would call Fox News “objective,” it is no wonder members of the public say that. Fox quotes Democrats as well as Republicans, often making them look like fools, or worse, monsters. But they are covered, all under the slogan “fair and balanced.”

Of course people are not going to admit that they only read and view news sources they agree with. This is a critical flaw in the research and the researchers know it. We even talked about it in every course I ever took or taught on the subject. There are inherent biases in this research.

Furthermore, the research shows:

Moderates are most likely to name CNN (18%). CNN essentially ties with NPR as the most named objective news outlet among liberal respondents, while NPR is the top choice among those who describe their views as “very liberal” (26%).

“NPR is also the most often mentioned objective news source among postgraduates, at 19%. Fox News leads among other educational groups, but it is mentioned less often by those with a four-year college degree but no postgraduate education (19%) than by those with some college education (27%) or a high school education or less (32%).”

Where Do We Go From Here?

“So What Should We Do Now?” they ask.

“While divided on who is responsible for ensuring people find accuracy and balance in news coverage — the media or individuals themselves — Americans at least agree on the problems: They do not like inaccuracy in reporting or any type of control over the stories they select. They think it is important to choose news sources that don’t just reflect their points of view (although most Americans say they already do that). And they believe that the media is critical to our democracy.”

This is an incredibly muddled paragraph. To make sense of it, the issue of accuracy should be dealt with as a stand alone issue. Of course no one wants to read something they perceive to be “inaccurate.” But what if their own ideological biases determine what they consider to be “accurate?” We live in an era of “alt-facts,” not just opposing points of view.

Story selection is an issue for Facebook and its algorithm in this case, not the press or the media, since every news outlet just shares every piece of clickbait that comes down the pike, including every false tweet by every politician of every stripe from the president on down. If we are going to cover “accurate” news, that would seem to dictate making some choices about what “both sides” we report.

What intelligent readers should recognize right away is that this is an impossible problem for the capitalist, corporate press and media, and for the Facebook algorithm. The only way to report “accurate” information is not to report lies we know to be lies. If we are bound to report “both sides,” and one side is always lying, then how are we ever going to meet this test of “objectivity?” It’s impossible, which is why I abandoned it a long time ago in favor of a different model, actually using a scientific test of objectivity instead of an economic one.

Jumponthebus2

As I explain in my book, which the mainstream press and media are determined to ignore, I set out on a quest to begin exploring this problem. That’s why we don’t run a story about every one of President Donald Trump’s Twitter tweets. To do so might prove to advertisers that you are reporting “both sides” and that you do not have a partisan bias against Trump, the Republican president. But it would not prove to readers that you only report “accurate information,” also known as “the truth.”

Think about it. There is absolutely no way to meet both standards, reporting both sides and reporting the truth. Somebody with a brain, education and experience has to make a determination about who is telling the truth, and it can’t be left up to poor readers who are befuddled by all of this.

If you want to read more of this research, continue on below.

Public trust in the media is at an all-time low

AMERICAN VIEWS: TRUST, MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY (PDF)

A Logical Fallacy

As Knight says, “the first step to recovery is admitting there is a problem.” If only they would admit there is a problem with their research.

Anyone who knows anything about research knows that the source of funding is often a problem. The Knight Foundation is funded by the German Knight brothers, of the defunct Knight Ridder newspaper chain. They don’t fund research for alternative, independent news websites, only print-based newspaper companies, which are bound by their outmoded, 20th century definition of “objective journalism,” which is an economic definition based on a capitalist, profit-seeking motive.

The truth has nothing to do with it.

This is clearly a logical fallacy in how we define objectivity in American journalism. Part of the problem is that American journalism historians don’t know much about science or the philosophy of historical fallacies.

This should be required reading, but I did not get exposed to it myself until I reached the Ph.D. level of education.

Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought by author David Hackett Fischer.

© 2018, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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