Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Role of Journalism in Shaping Public Perception and Public Opinion

The news is important. It is how we learn what is going on in the world. That knowledge helps shape our political views. If we hear that the employment rate has hit a certain percentage, we may believe that certain policy choices should be taken by our elected representatives. If we find out that the government is spending a certain amount on a particular program, that information may lead us to the conclusion that either more or less should be spent on it. In turn that conclusion may influence our decision about whether taxes should be raised, lowered or kept constant.

Most of us are busy earning a living and taking care of our families. We are not in the halls of Congress when bills get passed, we’re not in the streets of Damascus as Syrians protest against their government, and we’re not in the death chamber when Texas executes another inmate. Journalism is the primary vehicle for bringing the news to us.

The World English Dictionary gives us four definitions for the term “journalism”:
1. the profession or practice of reporting about, photographing, or editing news stories for one of the mass media
2. newspapers and magazines collectively; the press
3. the material published in a newspaper, magazine, etc: this is badly written journalism
4. news reports presented factually without analysis

The fourth one I find particularly insightful. Our ideal of journalism is that a person presents facts to us objectively. We are then left to make our own decisions based on the facts presented. Per our idea, the journalist is an objective third party who tells us impassionately what is going on--without inflicting her own opinions on us.

When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, I remember learning in school about the concept of “yellow journalism.” We learned that yellow journalism was problematic in our country in the late 1800s. Press titans like Hearst and Pulitzer tried to sway public opinion by their manipulation of the way news was presented. The sense we had in reading our history books was that this issue of yellow journalism was a problem our country had dealt with in the past. When our parents went home and watched Roger Mudd or John Chancellor, they were getting the straight forward truth of what was going on in the world. At that time, it was a very different situation for our Cold War enemies. TASS was the media mouthpiece of the Soviet Union and did not exactly present an unbiased perspective of the day’s events. But growing up, I took it for granted that our press in the United States was independent and gave us that straight scoop.

Sometime in my late teens I began to hear people complain about bias in the media. In particular, there were complaints that the media had a liberal bent. I didn’t particularly see it, but then again I’ve always been left of center.

In my adulthood, the complaints of liberal bias became more and more pronounced. People turned away from traditional media outlets. Plenty of people I knew were enthusiastic about new media like A.M. Talk Radio and eventually Fox News Channel.

I have tuned in to such outlets on many occasions over the years because I have felt that it was important to know what sizeable segments of the population were listening to in order to help shape their opinions. I always try to be open-minded, but was frequently demoralized when listening to such programs. They typically provided little in the way of news. Few facts were provided. And when facts were provided, there was often little or no attempt to be objective. There seemed to be a lot of whining about certain facts.

I suppose the people who produced such programming felt that the traditional media was biased and that justified their own biases. The difference seemed to be the amount and transparency of bias. If the traditional media was subtly biased, these new conservative media were explicitly biased and often did not hold any pretense of being objective. But such media degrade to gripe fests and the indulgence of like minded people giving each other verbal high-fives. Listeners are exposed to opinion, but little to no new facts.

The left then responded with their own explicitly biased media. We had Air America, which didn’t last long. MSNBC has emerged. Oddly, Comedy Central has become a news media outlet for some with their Daily Show and Colbert Report programs. More recently Current TV has come into existence. It has received more attention as Keith Olbermann has signed on to host his show on that channel.

Such explicitly liberal news programs are more palatable to me than their conservative counterparts, but just barely so. I am repulsed by the jump-on-the-bandwagon, bash-your-opponent mentality. The other side is always wrong and vilified. Let’s get angry and yell about our opponents for hours on end. Alternately, let us point out how stupid, arrogant or corrupt the other side is, then we’ll ridicule them mercilessly.

Whether conservative or liberal, such programming is a waste of time in my opinion. We only have so many hours in the day. If we opt to tune in to such programming, we likely are not making time to read articles or listen to programs with a more objective approach and with a greater focus on providing information. This sorry state of American journalism is dumbing down our political debates. We make up our minds without a lot of factual information. We often just parrot whatever our favorite pundit has publicly opined. Truly, that is a tragic, worrisome state of affairs. It makes me pessimistic about the future of our republic.

Mark 4:24 (Amplified Bible)

And He said to them, Be careful what you are hearing. The measure [of thought and study] you give [to the truth you hear] will be the measure [of virtue and knowledge] that comes back to you--and more [besides] will be given to you who hear.

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