Keeping our eye on the prize

What kind of news do we want?


Yesterday, I drove to the local community college to watch two touring debaters from Great Britain discuss objective media versus partisan media.

The free event, hosted by Chesapeake College’s Honors Council, focused on a question of preference, for living in a country where major media outlets would be balanced and objective, or for living in one where major media outlets represented different political and world agendas.

The debaters, James Baross and David Jones, landed their points with vigor.  Here are just a few of them:

Jones stood for one state-sponsored but independently run media outlet that would strive to report balanced and unbiased news, maximizing truth (e.g., the BBC), and that, when found in error, would publish retractions with the same prominence as the original mistake.

Conversely, he warned, in a commercial news landscape offering a plurality of views, each view stems from the top, from the news outlet’s owner. When an owner  (and one’s boss) is pushing an agenda, Jones cautioned, the agenda takes primacy over facts and accuracy. And partisan media sensationalize the news to drive up readership, creating disparate visions of America. Citizens are forced to choose between competing realities, each defined in opposition to the other. Society becomes polarized.

Baross stood for a media world consisting only of partisan, commercial outlets presenting news aligned with their ideologies (e.g., Fox News, MSNBC). You don’t have time to evaluate and interpret the tremendous flow of facts and events that an unbiased news source would present, he reminded the audience. Wouldn’t you rather have someone who shares your views do that for you? Doesn’t it make sense, Baross suggested, for you to follow an ideologue from the mainstream media who thinks the way you do? Besides, it’s impossible to be truly neutral, he reasoned. Even when a news source is simply presenting facts, judgments and evaluations occur.

To illustrate that point, Baross told a story about two monks in a monastery.

One of the monks goes to his pastor and asks, “Pastor, am I allowed to smoke while I pray?”

“No, no, how dare you!” responds the pastor. “You are desecrating a sacred activity!”

Another monk asks the pastor, “Pastor, is it okay if I pray while I smoke?”

“Of course it is, my son,” the pastor says. “Praying is an activity to be done at any time, all the time, whatever you’re doing.”

Just the framing of a question, what comes first and what comes last, changes the way in which a situation is perceived. “Even in a world in which you simply tell facts, you can’t avoid implying position; you can’t avoid bias,” Baross concluded.

“We agree,” responded Jones.  “You can’t have an unbiased news media source. But what you can do is, you can set up a primary news organization that has the overriding ideology of promoting unbiased information.”

Ooh, they’re good, those debaters from Great Britain.  Their arguments reminded me that, while we try to find ways to financially support excellent news coverage in this country, we also need to keep our eye on the prize — what sort of news coverage we want.

That task may have become a little bit easier this week. For in this world in which we live, in addition to objective news and partisan news, we face a new player — fake news.  At least we can all agree that we don’t want that. The advertising revenue that legitimate news sources so desperately need should not be shared with purveyors of outright lies.

This week, The New York Times reported that Google and Facebook now say they intend to choke off advertising revenue that has been helping to support the producers of fake news.

“Google kicked off the action on Monday afternoon when the Silicon Valley search giant said it would ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service. Hours later, Facebook, the social network, updated the language in its Facebook Audience Network policy, which already says it will not display ads in sites that show misleading or illegal content, to include fake news sites.” Google and Facebook Take Aim at Fake News Sites

At least we can agree on what we don’t want and work to snuff it out.  It’s a good start.

Author: TAM

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