Monday, July 24, 2006

Fair and Balanced

One of my biggest gripes is what I perceive as unbalanced news reporting. Articles which are supposed to be news, the reporting of facts, seem to be the exact opposite. For example, talking points "leaked" to the reporter by the regime are stenographically reproduced and never challenged and in fact is touted as the truth. A similar issue arises when what is perceived as truth (evolution as a viable, scientifically supported description of reality) is offset by Intelligent Design presented as if it was an equally viable, scientifically supported description of reality.

It turns out that partisan stances enter into the assessment of fair and balanced reporting. Big surprise, that, eh? From today's Washington Post:

If someone says several nice things about you and one derogatory thing, what sticks in your mind? People who are deeply invested in one side are quicker to spot and remember aspects of the news that hurt than they are to see aspects that help, said Richard Perloff, a Cleveland State University political communication researcher.

Perloff elicited the same clashing perceptions of bias from pro-Israeli and pro-Arab audiences when he showed them news clips with equal amounts of violence.

Ross and Perloff both found that what partisans worry about the most is the impact of the news on neutral observers. But the data suggest such worry is misplaced. Neutral observers are better than partisans at seeing flaws and virtues on both sides. Partisans, it turns out, are particularly susceptible to the general human belief that other people are susceptible to propaganda.

While the studies described in the article are interesting, especially as to the "hostile media effect," the big question is what kind of impact such studies have on the actual reporting of the news. Do media outlets take their consumer complaints seriously? Or do they just take the existence of complaints from both sides as evidence that the article was balanced?

Apparently at least one newspaper does take its readers complaints seriously enough to take a hard second look at coverage of controversial issues. Kate Parry, the Reader's Representative (ombudsman) for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, detailed one such instance of coverage, reader response, and editorial review in a recent column.

When Hamas and Hezbollah, groups considered terrorists by the U.S. government, slipped into Israel to kill and kidnap soldiers, it was the kind of poke in the eye intended to provoke a response.

It was no surprise Israel moved quickly to defend itself and demanded the return of the soldiers, launching a campaign of bombs and missiles against Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah sent missiles raining back on northern Israel from Lebanon.

Caught in the crossfire were civilians. Wire service photographers recorded the carnage. Soon hundreds of images arrived daily in computers of Star Tribune photo editors.

Photo director Peter Koeleman and his staff looked for more than just arresting images. They were looking for a complete visual story. Koeleman is keenly aware of past reader criticism that Israel is sometimes portrayed as the aggressor when it's actually responding to acts of terror against its citizens. A few readers called last week objecting to particular images or to different sizes and placement of photos on a specific day.

...His goal since the Israeli soldiers were kidnapped has been to provide "balance overall," meaning that there may be daily variations in which side is visually dominant, but over time the whole visual story is told.

Sometimes in the past that was hard to do because access for photographers to one side or the other varied. "Hezbollah and Hamas make a point of showing bodies. We've been manipulated by that," Koeleman acknowledged. But this time access has been "strikingly similar," Koeleman said.
[Emphasis added]

This seems to me to be a reasonable and honest approach to the visual aspect of the news. Access is indeed a problem if one side of the story does not want the full story reported. One need only recall the ban on pictures of flag draped coffins returning to the US from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to appreciate the difficulty news gatherers face. Still, journalists have to keep pushing back and if even that fails, they need to report the basis for the failure, which is also part of the story.

We haven't seen too much of that lately. Hopefully the STrib can show their big sisters the way to do it.


Blogger Xan said...

Alas, I am not quite as impressed with this statement

"Hezbollah and Hamas make a point of showing bodies. We've been manipulated by that," Koeleman acknowledged. But this time access has been "strikingly similar," Koeleman said

as you are. First of all he fails to mention (at least here) the massive efforts the Israelis have made to cut off Lebanese/Hezbolla communications with the larger world. Juan Cole and Billmon have discussed this in recent days--how Israel is simply accustomed to being the only voice available in western, particularly US, media, with Arab/Muslim/"enemy" voices only heard in the Arabic-language press.

Now the pictures are on CBS evening news of the blown-up offices and satellite dishes and transmission towers of Lebanese TV--official government stations as well as the Hezbollah one--but they don't connect the dots either, that this is a concious, concerted effort to dominate the "information battlefield." Air war of a different sort if you will.

And the line about "using bodies to manipulate", which exactly is more manipulative, making pictures of the dead bodies or making the bodies be dead in the first place?

I am not yelling at you, of course, but him. He didn't come on Eschaton and ask my opinion though, and you did. :)

4:59 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home