Do you want to know what journalists think?
Or would you prefer they keep their views hidden and let you guess at their opinions?
The reason for the question is a Pew Research Center pitch on “a major study on the local news landscape across the United States, finding that a majority of Americans (61 percent) believe local journalists should not express their views on local issues, with Republicans considerably more likely than Democrats to feel this way (71 percent and 54 percent, respectively).”
What exactly the finding means is hard to decipher. It reminds me a little of an observation the actor Ed Asner once made during a Saturday Night Live skit: “You can’t put too much water in a nuclear reactor.”
It was a wonderful double entendre.
The statement could mean that if a nuclear reactor is overheating, you should flood it with water, ie. “you can’t put too much water in a nuclear reactor.” It could also mean that if a nuclear reactor is overheating, you should be very careful about adding water, ie. “you can’t put too much water in a nuclear reactor.”
The Pew question has a similar feel, and Calvin Jordan at Pew could only respond this way when asked what the question meant:
“The survey did not provide an explanation/definition of the phrase. Rather, we left it open to interpretation by survey participants.”
So does the Pew study mean journalists should avoid forming views on local issues, or does it mean they should simply keep secret the views they have formed on local issues? And if the latter is the case, how does one reconcile the Pew finding with the results of a 2018 Gallup poll that found 55 percent of the country – and a staggering 79 percent of Republicans – distrust the mainstream media because of a fundamental lack of honesty as to their views?
“Transparency…emerges as an important factor in the closed-ended ratings of factors that influence trust: 71 percent say a commitment to transparency is very important,” the Gallup poll said.
Transparency and secrecy are, unfortunately, at opposite ends of the spectrum, and the Gallup poll would lead one to believe readers want journalists to be more open about their views rather than less so.
“Asked to describe in their own words why they trust or do not trust certain news organizations, Americans’ responses largely center on matters of accuracy or bias. Relatively few mention a news organization’s partisan or ideological leaning as a factor.”
It’s rather hard to build trust if you a.) claim to be free of any bias; or b.) refuse to reveal your bias. The first is impossible to believe; the only people lacking bias are the brain dead. And the second is dangerous in the age of the internet where almost anything can Wikileak.
The PEW study comes at a time when journalism is trying both to redefine itself in the market and searching for its future identity. On many levels, the business appears to be growing increasingly partisan.
News organizations stuffed with reporters short on views, well-connected to their communities, and daily focused on the weather, crime, “prices” (whatever that polling category means), government and politics, schools, jobs and employment, community activities, arts and culture, sports, and restaurants, clubs and bars in that order.
Or so the readers say. Only one of those topics – weather – was rated of daily importance by a majority of those polled. The weather category ticked 70 percent. The other daily important topics ranged from crime at 44 percent to restaurants at 8 percent.
But the classes shifted all over the place when PEW asked what was “important, but not for daily life,” and “interesting to follow.” Government and politics rise to 50 percent in the former category. And when the daily important and regularly important categories are combined, more than half of readers think everything but sports and restaurants is important daily or close to daily.
The Pew study is stuffed with data that can be viewed in all kinds of ways. Some of it appears little more than a reinforcement of what many would consider obvious – 89 percent of Americans read some news digitally, a quarter of Americans ignore local news, digital is closing in on TV as the main source for news, and newspapers continue to fade.
And then there is this:
“Other (news) provider types…are local organizations such as churches or schools (64 percent get at least some news there), local government agencies or officials (64 percent), non-daily community newspapers (61 percent ), and newsletters or listservs (59 percent). At the bottom of the list – and the only provider that fewer than half ever use for news – is online-only news sources, such as local blogs or nonprofit online news startups.
“All in all, 28 percent of the public often gets news from at least one of six less traditional types of providers asked about here, and a vast majority – 89 percent – get news from at least one of them.”
This should come as no surprise to those living in a state where the Alaska State Troopers went online long ago, and where the Anchorage Police Department has grown increasingly aggressive in covering itself, especially on social media and via Nixle, something that began life as an emergency messaging service.
Government-paid reporters taking over for independent journalists to cover their employers might be expected to raise some concerns for those living in a democracy, but the country has so far seemed preoccupied – as the Pew findings on “accuracy” underline – with the performance and biases of the long-established media whose members are also wrestling with the same issues, though seldom publicly.
Take it from the Facebook post of an Alaska journalist who shall remain nameless:
“In public and with sources, I agree one shouldn’t (express opinions). But on a person’s private, personal Facebook page? I think it’s unrealistic to hold journalists to never to talk about their political views ever in any circumstance. I’m not going to march in a rally, and I never tell people who I voted for, but my Facebook is for family and friends and can be a good outlet.”
As if a screenshot containing the above post would never end up in a message from a Facebook friend to a Facebook friend to a Facebook friend to craigmedred.news because it sometimes happens to report on Alaska media.
Journalists needing to vent their opinions and biases online in any form might as well do so publicly. Facebook isn’t a personal journal kept hidden under a bed for the author’s eyes only. Facebook, Twitter and other social media were designed specifically to share information and share it widely.
If you are a journalist hoping to be seen as fair and objective, it is not a good idea to vent your political frustrations in “private” Facebook screeds. Living a double life seldom works out well.
It is arguably better to do this:
Or even this:
The first Tweet is Alaska Public Media reporter Casey Grove expressing his views on the state contracting with a private company to run the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. The second Tweet/reTweet is Howard Weaver, the revered former editor of the Anchorage Daily News, channeling the views of a guitarist for the band The Knack, best known for the hit songs “My Sharona,” “Good Girls Don’t,” and “Baby Talks Dirty.”
Say what you will about these Tweets, no one can accuse either journalist of a hidden agenda. They clearly put their opinions out there.
Weaver is obviously different from Grove in that Weaver is retired or semi-retired. A fair number of journalists seem to retire not just from journalism but from the idea of objectivity itself.
Upon joining the Twitterati, they somehow forget that there are usually two or more sides to most arguments. It’s hard to watch journalists like Weaver who’ve spent their lives championing the ability of journalists to rise above personal feelings in the name of fairness and objectivity rush to the top of the partisan barricades to curse their newly declared enemies once free from those constraints.
Trump might indeed lack the legal power to avoid the subpoenas. But in fairness, some legal scholars, among them former House of Representatives Senior Counsel Micheal Stern, say Trump does appear to have some legitimate legal grounds on which to base his opposition.
And wouldn’t learned members of the bar be better sources for opinions on the law than rock musicians lobbing profanity-laced accusations that members of Congress are cowards and traitors?
Not to mention that it’s not a good look for journalism to have journalists, retired or not, endorsing rants by guys who were in a band that sang “my baby she say hurt me, hurt me….my sweetie loves a real neat beating.”
None of this is meant to suggest that Weaver, Grove or anyone else – journalist or otherwise – should be denied their right to express their opinion. The fundamental underpinning of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is that opinions matter just as much as facts and everyone is entitled to theirs no matter how outrageous.
What it is meant to illustrate is that we appear to be way past the point where journalists can simply stop talking about their opinions and all will be fine. To put it simply, there’s already too much shit in the water to try to convince anyone that the Luggable Loo is a water bucket even if that is how the bucket at its base began life.
As a group, journalists have now documented themselves as people loaded down with opinions. All they can hope to do going forward is be honest, admit their bias, and try to convince people they can be fair in the coverage of news despite human handicaps.
Grove is an intelligent guy. In reporting an API story, he’s fully capable of summarizing the arguments for and against the privatization of such a facility no matter his personal opinions. All decent journalists are capable of the same. Journalism is a little like, or should be a little like, being on a good debate team. You should be able to make the case for either side.
Would it be better if journalists avoided expressing their opinions in the shallow, sound-bite world of Twitter where outrage trumps reason and substance? Generally yes.
If journalists were to cease such behavior would readers immediately judge them fair arbiters of the debates rocking the public square? Not bloody likely, but it would be a start toward rebuilding the idea of journalists as the moderator of the debates necessary to the survival of a democracy.
Of course, Pew could be wrong about what people want. It’s possible nobody truly wants a moderator, let alone an arbiter. The market would appear to indicate that the fairness and accuracy people told Pew they want is their fairness and accuracy.
Fox News built its brand on the claim “fair and balanced.” Fox rose to number one in cable TV news by telling a sizable segment of America what it wanted to hear. The internet is even better designed for this approach. People can search the tubes for news that satisfies a serious human weakness – confirmation bias.
People appear hardwired to find “evidence such that it reassures them they’ve made the right call,” Science Daily reported in summarizing the latest research last fall. “Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology…have shown that people will do the same thing even when the decision they’ve made pertains to a choice that is rather less consequential: which direction a series of dots is moving and whether the average of a series of numbers is greater or less than 50.”
When it comes to news, significant numbers of readers appear predisposed to judge news fair and accurate on the basis of what reinforces their personal beliefs and assumptions while tending to judge as unfair and unbalanced news that challenges those views.
Thus liberals think news from the left more accurate, conservatives think news from the right more accurate, and true independents struggle to figure out what to think. As an independent friend observed, readers now really have to be reporters to get an unbiased view of what’s going on. If they read five different news sources, they can usually get some idea of what the real story.
This is only destined to become more true as the journalism market fractures. Alaska is today following a national trend in that regard.
Suzanne Downing at MustReadAlaksa has the right side of the spectrum covered. The left is being occupied by a reinvigorated Jeannie Devon at the Mudflats, a woman who once pitched a fit when the Anchorage Daily News revealed the face behind the Sarah Palin-potshotting website; AK Ledger, something of a rebirth of the old Alaska Commons; and DermotCole.com, a one-time Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter who sometimes sounds like the new voice of the Alaska Democrat party.
Then there’s The Midnight Sun, which leans left but often provides the most-balanced of state politic assessments, and wild man Jeff Landfield at The Alaskan Landmine, which sort of rolls with its name. There is no telling where Lanfield might detonate an IED.
He was last week in a fight with Anchorage talk show host Mike Porcaro, who makes his living as an advertising executive while hosting the Alaska Daily Planet, yet another news/commentary blog/website that at the moment leans right but could go who knows where given that Porcaro has in the past been involved in the campaigns of Democrats as well as Republicans.
Lastly there’s what is left of the traditional mainstream media – the Daily News in the form of ADN.com, the Fairbanks News-Miner, Alaska Public Media, and local TV in the shape of KTVA.com/KTVF.com in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and KTUU.com in Anchorage – trying to sell readers the opinion-free news PEW says they want even if a lot of readers are now so skeptical of journalism that even if the news were to arrive opinion free, they’d read opinions into it.
Most of the mainstream come with their own baggage, too. Public Media is associated with National Public Radio, considered by a large part of the country as left leaning. The ADN still carries the history of Alice Rogoff, friend to Democrat president Barack Obama; plus the liberal, California-based McClatchy Company from which she bought the paper and old editors Weaver and Pat Dougherty. KTVA is associated with parent company GCI, the giant telecom and cable company which has been politically active, sometimes very active, on both left and right.
And then there are the reporters themselves who work for those companies. Remember Charlo Greene, the KTVA journalist covering the legalization of marijuana who reported The Alaska Cannabis Club would be fighting to make marijuana legal before revealing she was the club and offering her now infamous sign-off of “fuck it, I quit?”
This would be the same Charlo Greene quoted about a month earlier in an ADN story which said, “an Alaska Cannabis Club founder spoke with Alaska Dispatch News on the condition of anonymity, citing concern over potential repercussions from her employer.”
Greene, with a little help from ADN editors, certainly managed to keep her personal views out of sight until she very publicly rocketed them into view. This sort of thing certainly doesn’t help build trust in the media.
Then again, maybe the business has deteriorated to the point where it doesn’t matter that someone is reporting on an issue while campaigning for one side of the issue. Not that journalism has ever been pure. It hardly can be since it has to be financed somehow.
This website, for instance, has run ads for Penco Properties in the past. Penco is connected to Bob Penney, a wealthy Anchorage businessman and political activist who has long promoted putting more salmon in the Kenai River. He is the devil in eyes of the commercial fishermen of Cook Inlet. Some of them would like to believe the reporting on fisheries here is slanted because of that advertising.
That’s possible; it’s equally possible stories end up slanted the other way due to the author’s effort to treat commercial fishermen “fairly,” which is something hard to define. Were you to ask an independent group of people if they thought it fair that a single industry has been given more than 75 percent of a resource and the people of the state get comparatively little out of that in the form of taxes or well-paying jobs, what would they say?
I don’t know the answer to the question. I’ve wrestled with it many times myself. I do know it’s not fair commercial fishermen lose fish to support a growing sport fishing industry. I also know that life isn’t fair, and that the real question isn’t about fairness to any Alaska interest group but to all Alaskans – most of whom don’t participate in Cook Inlet fisheries or participate so little as to be essential non-players.
These complexities as to the question of fairness are what made old-school journalism a lot harder than it looked, and they have shaped a personal view that maybe the issues aren’t so much about fairness or accuracy as about adequacy.
Does the reporter have adequate knowledge of the subject material? Is there adequate information in the story to allow a reader to form his or her own opinion?
Some of the best reporting I read is sometimes slanted, but it contains a wealth of information. Often the information leads to a conclusion different from those of the author.
There’s not a lot of this sort of reporting happening today because the market doesn’t appear to support much. When news consumers go shopping for news, the majority appear to want something that fits with their view of what they want to believe.
The whole “fake news” phenomenon is about nothing but that. It isn’t about a skillfully orchestrated Russian plan to topple democracy. It is largely about a bunch of people figuring out how to use the market to make money.
They craft stories to feed the bias of consumers who share the stories with friends who shared the stories with friends etc. and etc. and etc.
“Beyond media organizations and other information providers,” PEW reported, “it’s common to get local news from friends, neighbors and family – 90 percent do so at least occasionally, and 17 percent do so often. This largely happens by word of mouth (either face to face or over the phone) as opposed to through email, text or social media.”
The trend lines cannot be ignored here either.
“Social media is more likely to be the preferred pathway to local news among….those ages 18 to 29 (32 percent prefer social media, vs. 17 percent of those ages 30 to 49, 7 percent of those 50 to 64 and 3 percent of those 65 and older),” Pew reported.
“In addition, social media is preferred at nearly twice the rate among those who do not pay for local news (16 percent) as those who do (9 percent) – giving further evidence to the finding that those who do not pay for local news primarily do so because there are many free options available.”
So what happens as more and more traditional news sites try to raise revenues by charging readers? Does more news move into the maelstrom of social media? And does that mean news pushes social media toward new standards of fairness and accuracy or vice versa?