web counter Media Lies: What's wrong with the media?

Thursday, May 27, 2004

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What's wrong with the media?

The Belmont Club has a series of articles about the "wedding party" in western Iraq that has been the subject of so much attention lately. The articles attempt to show how the media adjusts the story as they learn more facts but some of the falsehoods initially published continue to be repeated in subsequent stories. They argue that the cause of this is the lack of an analytical component within the media that can evaluate the data as they come in and adjust the story to fit the facts.

While I agree with this analysis, I think it addresses only the mechanical aspects of the problem without addressing the root cause. I believe there are two driving forces that cause the media to report events inaccurately; the desire to get "exclusive" information - to be "first" with the story, and the failure to crosscheck the "facts" with reliable sources. The former is perhaps understandable in a connected world were information exchange is almost instanteous and hundreds of competitors are searching for new stories or new "angles" on old stories. It may even be forgiveable. The latter is not. It is a fundamental failure of the journalism schools. When "reporting" wanders into fiction, the value of the information is degraded. The public may forgive this from time to time, but repeated failures will drive the public to find other, more reliable sources of information.

If you read the details of the three wedding story essays (on the Belmont Club), it becomes evident that the reporters are "adjusting the facts" as they learn more about the story. This is not reporting. It's gossip. This sort of adjusting of the story should take place in the editing room, not on the front page or as the lead article on a website. Reporting requires careful collection of evidence and verification of the various elements of a story before publishing. That process must be done by mutliple people to ensure that the story is "right". Most major news organizations have the pieces in place to do this, yet the fail time and time again.

Several factors compound the problem. First, the old bromide "if it bleeds, it leads" prejudices news organizations toward negativity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the reporting on the war in Iraq. It began very early, when the US troops were reported as "bogged down" when all they were doing was waiting out a sand storm before advancing farther. It resumed, after a brief euphoria when Bahgdad "fell" (or when the regime was deposed depending upon one's point of view), with reporting of the deaths of soldiers due to terrorist activity. Soon the press adopted the tag line "x number of soldiers have died since Bush declared the war was over" which is obviously designed to mock the President's "mission accomplished" visit to the Abraham Lincoln (and misrepresents the facts). It continues today, with the drumbeat of negative stories about "insurgents" and "uprisings", both words intended to convey the message that the Iraqis don't want the American forces in their land and that they hate us.

Furthermore, the news media calls positive stories "human interest" stories. It's understood that human interest stories are "feel good" stories and should not be overdone. It's better to stick to "hard news". (One wonders why stories that would interest humans wouldn't dominate the news.) This attitude prejudices the media against telling the story of what is really going on in Iraq. If Iraqis have more and cleaner water than they used to, so what? That's a feel good story, not hard news. If the Iraqi economy is more stable than it's been in years and if Iraqis are making more money than they have in decades, that's a feel good story, not hard news. The result of this attitude is to slant the news toward negativity even further.

Finally, the media depends upon other organizations, whose work they do not vet at all, to relay information when they don't have their own personnel on the scene. So, an AP story that is inaccurate or completely fictional can be repeated worldwide and even if a correction is forthcoming, it won't get the same attention that the original story did. This phenomenon is evident in the stories about the wedding party, as pointed out by Iraq Now in the story I mentioned in my first post.

It is evident that these problems are not only endemic but that the media will not correct them through self-policing (the New York Times' feeble attempts notwithstanding.) It is up to "the people" to correct the problem by pointing out, consistently and persistently, when problems in stories become evident. That is what I intend to do here, as others are already doing. The more voices of the people, the more likely it is that the problem will either get corrected or the media will be replaced. (The success of Fox News and the failures of CBS and NBC are evidence of this.) I have more faith in the latter than I do the former.