A Possible Blind spot for the Press

The following tweet resonated with me, and I wanted to comment on it:

Also: the most pervasive bias in political coverage is not left vs. right it’s “follows politics” vs. “doesn’t follow politics” By default, nearly everyone who covers politics falls into the “follows politics” category, which makes it really hard to understand people who don’t
What are possible ways the “follows politics” people (or news junkies, as I call them) have trouble understanding the “doesn’t follow politics” folks? Here are some thoughts off the top of my head Continue reading “A Possible Blind spot for the Press”

Changing Journalism Requires Systemic Changes; Or, the Challenge of Covering Trump, Part 2

I previously wrote about some of the unique challenges the press faces in covering Trump. But I never really touched on the larger structural features in the press that prevent coverage that best serves the public. I want to write about that in this post. Specifically, I want to address criticism of press coverage that I see regularly. What’s interesting, in my view, is that I agree with their criticisms, but my sense is that they don’t seem to understand the obstacles that prevent the coverage they seek. For example, the solution isn’t simply editors and journalists simply choosing a different approach. In my opinion, the problem is systemic and structural; individual journalists are more like cogs in a machine than masters operating the machine. To put it more simply, Continue reading “Changing Journalism Requires Systemic Changes; Or, the Challenge of Covering Trump, Part 2”

Commercialization is a Bigger Problem in Journalism Than Political Bias; Or, a Letter Jane Craig Could Have Written

This is a not a new idea. The problem has existed probably since at least the 1980s. It’s also not an opinion I’ve just arrived at. I thought of this because of a recent post I read, about a journalist (who reminded me of Holly Hunter’s character in Broadcast News) quitting MSNBC.

It’s possible that I’m more sensitive to the editorial process due to my background in public radio, where no decision I ever witnessed was predicated on how a topic or guest would “rate.” The longer I was at MSNBC, the more I saw such choices — it’s practically baked in to the editorial process – and those decisions affect news content every day. Likewise, it’s taboo to discuss how the ratings scheme distorts content, or it’s simply taken for granted, because everyone in the commercial broadcast news industry is doing the exact same thing.
and later,
“We are a cancer and there is no cure,” a successful and insightful TV veteran said to me. “But if you could find a cure, it would change the world.” As it is, this cancer stokes national division, even in the middle of a civil rights crisis. The model blocks diversity of thought and content because the networks have incentive to amplify fringe voices and events, at the expense of others… all because it pumps up the ratings.
I want to be clear that while I agree that ratings driven approach hurts the quality of news, this is not the same thing as saying “fake news”–that is, broadcast journalism is completely unreliable; that they’re making things up, particularly to hurt political opponents. I don’t think the public should completely give up on TV news, although they should be cautious and not blindly trust what they watch. The journalist calls for some way to change things. I’ll address some ideas in the first comments post.

Examples of the Confusion and Difficulty with Navigating the Current Information Environment

There are two main positions regarding the lack of an informed citizenry in a democratic society. One emphasizes the failure of individual citizens–that is, they are apathetic or lazy, failing to think critically and put in the time to inform one’s self. The other emphasizes the effects of new technologies and media–specifically, the deluge of information and the eroding authority and influence of traditional curators of information. I use the word “emphasizes” intentionally, signifying that both aspects are important, but the difference in position is a matter of emphasizing one aspect over the other.

I fall into the latter group. Specifically, I believe that not only an informed citizenry, but a functioning public square, which is critical for a democratic society, depends on addressing some of the negative effects of new technology. My sense is that new technologies that change nature and flow of information requires societies to adjust, creating tools and processes to help individuals and institutions manage and make information meaningful and useful, versus the opposite. Knowledgeable, critical thinkers are important component of this process, but even if every citizen had these attributes, the problem would still be significant. In this thread, I hope to give some specific examples, primarily from social media, that illustrate this.

Evaluating the Credibility of Information Sources: An Important Procedure to Managing News and Information in the 21st Century

Here’s the basic premise I’m operating from: There’s too much information for even the most rigorous critical thinker to evaluate each news item or issue on a case by case basis. As a result, everyone has to rely on shortcuts or heuristics to evaluate information. One common approach is to rely on certain sources, while ignoring others. A source can be an individual, group or institution. It may be someone we know personally or strangers we see on TV or the internet. It may be mainstream or fringe outlets. In some cases, we just accept information from sources we trust at face value, without any scrutiny. For this approach to be sound, an individual has to effectively identify and separate reliable from unreliable sources of information. This is key. However, in a democracy, it is also crucial that consensus forms about credible and trustworthy source from across the political spectrum. If every political or social group makes different determinations about trusted sources, I don’t see how we can operate from a common set of facts and norms; and without this, I don’t think we can have a functioning democracy.

Because of all of these factors, I think we should put more time and effort into a thorough evaluation of the people and institutions that play a major role in providing information to the public sphere. This process should be based on similar, if not the same, type of standards journalists and academics use, and can be put into a table or scorecard. This would be easier to read, allow for regular updates, and provide a way to hold pundits and news outlets accountable. The reputation and trust of those who score highly should increase, while the opposite should occur for those with low scores.

By the way, a recent article on Bill Barr, specifically making a case that the public should not trust his pronouncements, made me think of this topic. Spending time and energy building a case for an individiual’s or institution’s credibility, based on previous comments and actions–and then presenting this in an easy-to-digest form–seems like a more useful way to use resources and an effective way to help citizens to sift through information. Ultimately, I think the approach will be crucial for creating a healthy public space for debate and discussion of critical issues–at least if we want a functioning democracy. On a sidenote, I recommend reading the Bill Barr piece. At the same time, when I imagine indifferent news consumers reading it, I tend to think they would think it’s just partisan attack on Barr. What I’m suggesting could get around this–as long as casual news consumers of all political stripes view the process of evaluating news sources as trustworthy and credible. One thing I forgot to mention: The people evaluating sources should represent major political groups, and being diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, age, sexual orientation, religion would be great as well.

The Tom Cotton Op-Ed Controversy at the New York Times; Or, the Challenge of Covering Trump, Part 2

There’s been a big controversy over the publication of an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton, most notably among the Times staff–so much so that the op-ed managing editor and deputy managing editor have stepped down. This incident is part of a bigger, complex issue that doesn’t have any clear and easy solutions. I want to put in my two cents. I’ll do that in the first comments section. (I should say that I consider this post closely related to the thread, The Challenge of Covering Trump.)

Four Pieces of Writing That Must Be Read in the Trump Era

I really enjoy the experience of coming across a new idea that changes my perception or understanding in a significant way. I’ve been thinking about four pieces of writing that did that for–all of them crucial, I would say, to Americans. I list those articles, with a brief description, in the first comment. (Note: The title is more of an attention-getter than something I literally believe.)

Idea for News TV Show: The Accountability Board

General idea:

The show will feature a panel of journalists and pundits that represent at least the left and right. Panelists, lead by a moderator, will discuss issues, giving everything from general remarks analysis, predictions, etc. Some of these remarks will be summarized at put on a large board–picture at table with the top row with the name and picture of each pundit per column. In the rows below will a list of questions or issues. In the pundits column we will see some of their comments and/or a summary of their comments.

One of the main effects of the show I’d like to see is the reputations of pundits becoming linked to the degree to which their analysis and comments are reasonable, logical and fair. Ultimately, the rewards should come in the form of improved reputation and status, while punishments should have the opposite effect–e.g., the reputations of those who make outrageous comments, lie, etc. will take a big hit.

One format I’d like to use on the show is to present at least two types of narratives or theories about an individual or situation. For example, with Trump, the great dealmaker who Washington hates because he’s crude outsider that has made them look foolish, might be one theory. The other theory is that Trump is a conman, who only cares about enriching himself. Pundits will all stake on their positions on each theory. As new information comes in, the pundits can adjust their position. In these reviews, the moderator can bring up previous comments made by the pundits–both positive and negative. One variation is the entire panel can also vote on whether an individual pundit is being reasonable, operating in good faith, etc. And these comments can also be put on the accountability board as well. Basically, the idea is to hold a pundit accountable for their public statements.