Earlier this afternoon, I came across a Guardian News article about media coverage of the U.S. election from writer Emily Bell. Bell takes a hard look at how American journalists’ desire to remain “neutral” has actually made them stray farther from digging up the truth than a biased viewpoint would. She references a phrase from philosopher Thomas Nagel, “the view from nowhere,” which basically when broken down means by avoiding any opinion, judgment or weigh in, the unbiased reporting because pointless reporting.
On Facebook, I posted my response—no, my absolute frustration and disgust of the state of today’s media—sparked by Bell’s article.
Who’s going to call out the untruths if journalists refuse to do so? Where are the truth tellers because we know it’s not necessarily politicians? Where is our systems check if the fourth arm, journalism, refuses to leverage its power? What’s happened to the balance here? Why is it all a dog-and-pony show?
This is not a politically slanted post. Fact checking should happen each and every time a politician gives a speech, posts a blog, gives a statement. Whether it’s Barack Obama, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney or even Rahm Emanuel.
I want the facts. I’ll make up my own mind. I expect better CNN.
Neutral Reporting vs. Unbiased vs. The View of Nowhere
Bell references a number of recent stories where “neutral” and “unbiased” reporting led to no reporting at all. The Republican National Convention (RNC) and Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” assertion are primary examples Bell points to where journalists—our fourth branch of government and society’s watchdogs—let untruths, inaccuracies and outrageous claims slip past unchecked, unquestioned, unchallenged. She specifically calls out CNN’s coverage of Paul Ryan’s speech at the RNC accusing President Obama of failures that happened before Obama took office, facts that were exposed online and on social networks within minutes of their utterance. As journalists tried to stay “neutral” so they appeared “unbiased,” they were really reporting from “the view of nowhere,” unable to dissect the issues and examine the story’s complexity.
Bell’s criticisms aren’t new: since the 1996 Telecommunications Act (full disclosure: former President Bill Clinton (D) signed the act into law), journalists’ ability to report has been called into question. We’re not in new territory here, except when you factor in the internet and social media. Until recently, if a journalist let a fact slide, it may take a few days before another reporting agency picked up on it or a lesser-known blog would post something. Enter the social age and you have up-to-the-minute critical reviews, amateur reporters and quick-typing fact checkers. You can’t hide facts on the internet; especially when you have thousands hunting.
There’s a recent commercial that jokes about how you can’t believe everything you read on the internet. That’s undeniable. But what you can do is use the internet as a tool to quickly research legitimate resources to get basic information and facts. Every journalist learns how to use the internet to research stories, and employs the web as a tool every day. So why aren’t journalists fact checking so they can ask some tough, difficult questions?
Journalists Stop Being Neutral and Start Reporting
As a journalist, the current state of media and journalism, and how journalists are honoring their crucial role in society, disappoints me. As a citizen, the lack of reporting adds to the confusion, quagmire and overall lack of clarity that comes with every complex story (political campaigns are especially difficult to navigate for every American). As a working professional busy juggling many obligations, responsibilities and more, journalists remaining neutral is an inconvenience; not having informed resources to turn to that are willing to break down the important issues and sort out the details makes it harder for me to make a decision. As a woman invested in choosing the right candidate—that will push for legislation that will protect my rights, the rights of my aging parents, the rights of my future children and the rights of my very diverse friends—no real reporting means the potential for choosing the wrong candidate and four years of no representation and voice in Washington.
When will journalists stop being neutral and start reporting? Have all journalism professionals bought into the claims from all sides that coming to a conclusion means that years of training to look at all sides to a story (not just two or three) and determine the best conclusion based on the facts at hand are pointless? When did having an opinion mean you couldn’t review information in a logical, practical and impartial manner?
Let’s get serious here: there’s always bias in every story. It’s impossible to avoid this. But journalists are trained and ethically motivated to employ research tools, interview tactics and due diligence to push past possible biases to get to the heart of the story, aka the truth. That’s what makes a journalist a journalist. And a multitude of journalists with different points of view, perspectives and stories to tell strengthen a particular story, and journalism as a whole, because there are more voices contributing to the rhetoric.
When all the voices that are supposed to dig for the truth go silent, who speaks up? I can wager it isn’t going to be other truth tellers.
Who’s to Blame?
Is the current state of media the fault of journalists? Not likely. I’ve investigated the influence of media conglomeration’s influence on journalism ethics in the past and it won’t surprise anyone that the biased viewpoints and financial interests of large corporations can quickly degrade and corrupt the tenants of journalism.
Today the push for journalists to employ social media networks to self promote their articles to increase readership and gain more web traffic to their stories, factors often determining their professional success (in other words job preservation), has taken an additional toll on how journalists carry out their important social role. It can’t be easy out there for a traditional journalist required to type out the next Pulitzer-Prize winning/record-breaking/unique-visitor garnering article on what will be the next biggest/greatest/ground-breaking discovery the city/country/world has ever seen.
But extra challenges and hurdles aside: Journalists, you’ve got a job to do. You need to stop being neutral. Abandon the idea of the unbiased. Throw caution to the wind and dig deep into that story. Ask the tough questions. Probe the unprobable. Get to the truth. Start reporting. If you won’t do it, who will?
What’s the future role of the journalist? Time will tell. I hope in this case, the internet will be a positive influence to encourage our watchdogs to emerge again, ready to dig for the truth, armed with the tools they need, to carry out this important social role. To new journalism professionals and young reporter hopefuls: Stop being neutral. Start reporting.