Sunday, April 7, 2013

Fair and Balanced

What is the obligation of the media to fact check? There are many fact checking sites out there but the prevailing attitude of balanced perspectives is in vogue.

Is it the obligation of a reporter to report what was said?  It is also in a journalists interests to verify facts. So where does the disconnect come when reporting events?  People like both sides as if they are equal and facts don't matter when the better orator wins.

If the facts, free of party doctrine, were actually biased heavily in favor of one side how would that color the reporter's decision? Does that make the newsman biased?

Put another way, if there are two sides of a debate occurring with roughly equal public support but scientifically unequal support, what is the obligation of the media to report in that instance? Surely the neutral perspective is the one that conforms to objective facts, but in this instance the facts are that a scientific approach has a radically different probability of outcomes than the public one.

For example climate change. The scientific (almost 100%) consensus is that excess greenhouse gasses produced by man is causing global average temperatures to rise.  There are predicted impacts that must be addressed as matters of policy: coastal populations exposed to extreme storm surges, droughts and water shortages, disruption of trade routes, ecological changes, etc.  The government is then obligated to take action on at least a few of these impacts resulting in a policy debate. If the scientists had it their way there would be a strong and immediate response.

Yet public acceptance of this scientifically robust data is mixed, many Americans simply do not believe change is occurring. If the public had it their way there would be a 50% chance nothing would get done (and so far that is what is happening).

So what is the obligation of the reporter? Is the obligation to set up two sides of the debate and present them as equal because public opinion says so, or is it to present the data as it stands scientifically? Are either approaches biased?

How does a reporter stay neutral in the face of such an overwhelming disparity between facts and public opinion?

Or put another way, we don't put racists on tv just because they have a different perspective.  We don't set up debates between segregationists and integrationists.  Not anymore at least.  But we did. And public opinion was split during that time.  At what point does the presentation of unscientific and prejudiced information as equal perpetuate that prejudice?

Of course there is the question of censorship.  And popular ideas, be they true or not cannot be suppressed simply by ignoring them.  Same goes for minority ideas.

How does a journalist properly temper inaccuracies without appearing biased?

The answer kind of sucks. The answer is that some people are going to get pissed off. No journalist is obligated to present two sides as equal in the face of unequal facts. A journalist may give fair voice to differing ideas but balanced no. Two plus two cannot equal five even if everyone believes it.

Of course George Orwell would beg to differ. The shared hallucination of the masses. The willful ignorance of a media willing to portray an alternate reality.

A strong independent media committed to the truth is the ideal.  We need to support that as a people.  Of course, independence is a tough notion. What is not reported is as important as what is. And how a story is reported can be far from the truth.

We are left then with the maddening question, who watches the watchers?  Who indeed.