On False Balance

Standard

In Josh Marshall’s keynote speech at Ithaca College, he touched on false balance in the media, which he is not alone in thinking pervades traditional media. He spoke of independent media as a counterbalance to that:

“There are a number of reasons why it’s important that there be an alternative media, not a media culled by a handful of major corporations. The one I want to focus on is the way that the mainstream media consistently and, as part of the ethos, prioritizes balance over accuracy in reporting the news – particularly political and campaign news.”

The government shutdown provided a case for many independent outlets to express outrage at the false balance present in the media. Unfortunately it usually takes a high-profile event like the government shutdown for enough independent outlets to start shouting false balance before it seeps into the mainstream. Yet in these cases, streamlined narratives are disrupted successfully. This piece by Egberto Willies for the Daily Kos pointed out that false balance like that around the shutdown pervades on an everyday basis, yet only makes itself utterly apparent occasionally:

“The most serious consequence of the accusation of the media having a liberal bias is its effect on the traditional media: It forces members to overcompensate in an attempt to seem ‘balanced.’”

This rings true to my ears, the problem is, its kind of unprovable––on a metascale that is. In specific events it is a very different matter, and the traditional media need to be held accountable on a purely factual level. As Wellies continued:

“The problem is when politicians or their operatives blatantly lie to attempt to get their point across. In that case the media’s role is not to be balanced—it is to inform the citizens of the lies and misinformation.”

The problem is, its so difficult for many decentralized components of an independent movement to cohesively challenge the establishment on these smaller issues. A recent example of a high-profile government claim thats been repeated by the media is this ProPublica piece, which debunks the claims of “54 terrorist attacks thwarted” due to NSA surveillance. The article also points out––though not to full effect, that “ ABC News, CNN and the New York Times have all repeated versions of the claim that more than 50 plots have been thwarted by the programs.”

While this is stellar journalism that successfully gets at the root of a myth and how it was perpetuated, it likely won’t really affect the mainstream narrative, so what’s the point? ProPublica has a reputation within the mainstream, but it doesn’t have the ability to change the mainstream narrative.

Too many journalism students––including myself––are fed lectures on balance and told their highest prerogative is objectivity. As Josh Marshall continued slightly later on in his keynote:

“There’s a lot of reasons why that is a flawed conception of journalism. It’s not a personal fault of the journalists in question – that’s the model they’re trained to operate in. As the concept of journalistic objectivity has evolved, it’s become a corrupt model of journalism, rooted in the economic changes of business in journalism over the last half-century.”

Unfortunately, until that type of thinking truly enters the mainstream it won’t cause substantive change. Hopefully Omidyar & Greenwald’s new outlet will be able to maintain an independent analytic voice, and push that independent thought into the mainstream.

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