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Posts Tagged ‘media’

More to the News Story than Meets the Eye

It doesn’t feel good to criticize The PBS NewsHour. The program is one of my favorite sources of news and insight; the producers take extraordinary care in selecting guests for each segment, bringing together experts that together present a careful, balanced, in-depth analysis.

This past Friday, though, one segment disturbed me—and, in the process, served to remind me of the need for a “balanced media diet.”

The story concerned the recent violence in Iraq’s Anbar province, and the role of al-Qaeda therein. I was delighted with their choice of guests: former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and former Marine Captain Bing West, who spent a great deal time in Anbar and has written extensively on the war.

The longer they talked, though, the less I could escape the nagging sense that a huge part of the story was missing.

This nagging sense didn’t come in a vacuum. Last September, at a conference on communication and conflict, I heard a penetrating analysis by Ahmed Hassin, a researcher at Australia’s Deakin University, on the role of traditional clans in supporting the nascent democracy in Iraq. Ahmed’s presentation astounded me with a level of nuance that is almost impossible to find in American reporting on the Middle East.

That nuance haunted me as I listened to the NewsHour guests. So I decided to take a look at Iraqi news sources to see what they had to say.

Sure enough, there was a lot more to this story than met the eye.

Crocker and West spoke confidently about al-Qaeda overplaying its hand, the clans united against al-Qaeda, and even “good guys” and “bad guys.” Aswat al Iraq and Iraq Daily described Sunni-Shiite tensions over the lack of Sunni representation in government, security forces’ breakup of a Sunni protest site, the resignation of 44 Members of Parliament over said breakup, etc.

Were Crocker and West wrong? Not necessarily. It’s hard to dispute calling al-Qaeda “the bad guys,” of course. Widespread clan resistance to al-Qaeda may still be in place. Still, the Iraqi news media made it clear that the situation is more nuanced—and perhaps less boldly optimistic—than the NewsHour guests described it.

The point here is not so much to sort out the “real story” in this specific situation as it is to point out the value of the “balanced media diet”: news from sources diverse in terms of geography, nationality, political orientation, culture, even ethnicity and gender. When we absorb this diversity of news, we see that few stories are as simple as one news segment from a single source will make them appear. Certainly few stories are as simple as partisans make them out to be.

Once we see the depth and nuance behind an issue, we realize what we know and, more important, how much we don’t know. This realization, in turn, can fuel our curiosity—and our willingness to hear others whose views may not be the same as ours. Over time, we start looking for depth and nuance in other issues, which gives rise to nagging discomfort like the type I felt during the NewsHour segment.

Have you ever noticed this? Did a news story leave you with the feeling that something was wrong, or at least incomplete? Feel free to share your story here.

Fox News, Paul Ryan, and Standing Knee-Deep in Campaign Verbiage

Sometimes, in this U.S. election season, you have a dig through a certain amount of misleading verbiage to get a better handle on the story.

This came to mind last week when a startling tidbit appeared on Facebook: Fox News had called Paul Ryan a liar. To be sure, other media were making similar accusations shortly after the Republican vice-presidential candidate gave his acceptance speech to the national convention. But a conservative news organization slamming a conservative candidate?

I pay close attention to this sort of thing. When a person or organization goes against the party line, it sometimes reveals a penetrating insight about the truth of the matter.  So if both The New York Times and Fox News (traditionally perceived as liberal and conservative, respectively) were accusing Ryan of lying, perhaps he was. That could be a serious charge.

Was it accurate?

I clicked through the Facebook link to the story. There it was in living color: “Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech.”

Wow. So Fox News did say that.

Not so fast. At the bottom of the article was a brief bio of the author—Sally Kohn, described as “a Fox News contributor and writer”—and a link. One click brought me to her website, another to her bio. A close reading revealed that her writing, her experience, and her activities run the gamut of the political spectrum, with an emphasis toward causes and media traditionally perceived as liberal.

So the Facebook post was inaccurate on two counts. First, Fox News didn’t write about Paul Ryan’s speech; Sally Kohn of Fox News did. Second, Sally Kohn does not appear to toe the conservative party line. Her view of Ryan’s address is less remarkable when you consider that.

What’s my point? I am not by any means impugning Sally Kohn’s writing or integrity. Nor am I making any judgment on Paul Ryan’s speech (I haven’t watched it yet). What I am emphasizing is the importance of getting the full story, ideally reading it in several sources on different points of the political spectrum. In my book (now available for pre-order), I call this the “balanced media diet”: if we get our news from, say, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, or The National Review and Mother Jones, or The Economist and the International Socialist Reviewor, even better, all six—we’ll have a far broader knowledge base from which to test the veracity of any given news item.

Most likely, we’ll also be more inclined to dialogue. One (sometimes painful) effect of a balanced media diet is that we come face to face with the legitimate viewpoints of the “other side.” We can understand how its adherents might come to the assumptions they cherish and the conclusions they put forth. We begin to see that our view is not necessarily the One True View, or even one of two opposing views, but rather one among many. Our thinking gets more nuanced. When this happens, we are more open to dialogue with our adversaries—because it’s harder to think of them as adversaries any longer.

Have you found news items that aren’t what they first appear to be? Have you read a publication from the other side of an issue and found it more enlightening than infuriating? I’d love to hear your experiences along these lines.

Reading the Media That Tell Me I’m Right

How many conservatives read Mother Jones? How many progressives ever tune into FOX News?

If Michael Kitchens’ research is any indication, the answer to both questions is: not many. An assistant professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College, Kitchens conducted a study that investigated whether people’s religious backgrounds influenced their choice of media on religion. He and his students asked 213 participants to rate their preference for one of three fictitious research summaries: one with positive information about religion, one with negative information about religion, and one neutral.

You can guess what the study found. Religious people preferred the positive summary. Non-religious people preferred the negative summary.

In an article on his research, Kitchens extrapolates from these findings to the political realm. It makes sense, he writes, that “people’s political identity fuels the need to seek information that confirms” their beliefs. This, he reasons, has given rise to a fractured media landscape in which “media sources continue to validate people’s preconceived notions and worldviews.”

I think he’s spot-on here.  What surprises me, though, is his bleak outlook for the future: he says that “harmony is unattainable” and the best course of action is to learn how to conduct “a reasonable debate about ideas.”

But how do we even get to the debate if we are so suspicious of the “other side”? That suspicion comes from the same cycle that Kitchens is on about. As we take in the news media that agree with us, we inevitably hear criticisms of those who disagree. In today’s toxic public square, those criticisms are particularly nasty: we hear our adversaries’ motives questioned, their patriotism impugned, their truthfulness cast into doubt. So how can we approach them with anything that appears like listening?

What if, however, we took one simple step long before the debate: what if we all read or viewed media that disagree with us?

What if we all committed to reading one newsmagazine, watching one news program, or visiting one blog whose worldview is completely different from ours? We could do this not just across political lines, but across other divides too: divides of gender, color, sexual orientation, and yes, religion.

Here’s what I’ve seen happen: once we take in this media from proponents of the “other side,” we realize that their thinking has some rationality behind it, that their motives have more integrity than we’re led to believe, that maybe a few of their points make sense—even if we still disagree with them. This opens our minds a bit. The next time we approach these people or their ideas, we might be just a bit more inclined to listen, and our minds open wider.

Now I’m not talking about the ranting media—particularly the talk radio programs whose sole purpose is to inflame passions and get ratings. I’m talking about thoughtful columnists and pundits who believe something different. This is why I read David Brooks and Kathleen Parker as well as Cynthia Tucker. Maybe I need to suck it up and read George Will, too.

What about you? If you could read one columnist or magazine or blog from the “other side,” which would you pick? Share it here. It might just be a resource no one else has thought about.

Dialogue and the Balanced Media Diet

Forget bias. Never mind sensationalism. The biggest problem with the media today is that human beings are involved. 

Why is that a problem? Because every human being comes with her own upbringing, experiences, values, and opinions. Try as they might, then—and I sincerely believe they try their hardest—journalists can never attain perfect objectivity. Of course there’s bias; it can’t be any other way.  

As a result, no one media outlet can provide the diversity of perspective that reasoned dialogue requires. To prepare ourselves for dialogue, then, we need a “balanced media diet”: a healthful blend of newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, TV news, and other sources that provide a cross-section of viewpoints. I took a look at this in my last post

Now, what does a balanced media diet look like? 

Part of it is pretty evident: we strive to absorb views across the political spectrum, as President Obama mentioned in his recent commencement address. Conservatives who love The Wall Street Journal or the National Review could try reading Mother Jones. Liberals who get their news from the Huffington Post could tune in to FOX News now and then. (Stop cringing. This hurts me worse than it hurts you.) 

Straightforward, right? Except diversity comes in more than one flavor. For instance: 

  • Ethnicity. If Anglos like me tapped into Latino news sources, how much more would we learn about the immigration debate?
  • Gender. GQ readers, when is the last time you picked up Ms. Magazine? And vice versa?
  • Faith. If atheists subscribed to God’s Politics, how much common ground might they find?
  • Reporting vs. analysis. Reporters by definition are held to a higher standard of balance and objectivity. Getting all one’s news from analysis and op-eds makes it too easy to absorb predigested opinion, however, thoughtful, as fact.

 There’s another way to balance your media diet too: perusing media that themselves present a diversity of opinions. I think of these as the “mutual funds” of news. Just as each mutual fund contains a diverse array of investments, so these diverse media present us with more breadth of perspective per hour spent ingesting the news.

I personally gravitate toward these “mutual funds.” From the PBS NewsHour I get in-depth investigations of a few issues each evening, usually with a well-struck balance of insight and opinion. Our local newspaper carries a diverse blend of conservatives, liberals, and everyone in between. In the pages of Tikkun I read social and spiritual insights from across the spectrum of faith traditions. Because of its thoughtful insights and analysis, The Economist also makes my list; it gives me a bias toward the free market while reporting on some of the world’s least reported stories.

What happens when we take in a diverse media mix? Inevitably, we come across the same story from different angles—and begin to see the legitimacy of each point of view. The complexity of the situation and the lack of easy answers become clear. We grow instinctively skeptical of easy answers for any issue. We start to take political and social heroes with several grains of salt, knowing how fallible humans are and how quickly we fall. Overall, we gain wisdom, empathy, and an ability to live with ambiguity.

Of course, we can’t read or watch everything we can put our hands on. But to the extent we broaden our media mix, we broaden our perspective. And to the extent we broaden our perspective, we prepare ourselves more deeply for dialogue.

The Health Care Kerfuffle: Dialogue, Anyone?

I must be hanging around the wrong media. Only two days ago did I become aware of the wild rumors surrounding health care reform.

The strangest of the strange is that under the new plan, seniors must undergo counseling that encourages them to cut their lives short. (Factcheck.org, an arm of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, debunks this rumor in a recent post.)  But there are other rumors as well: The plan amounts to government rationing of health care. Ordinary people would lose their current insurance under the proposed plan. Health care reform will cover illegal immigrants.

Some of these rumors, on their face, involve legitimate concerns and deserve accurate answers. Others don’t stand up to a moment’s thought. The key for our discussion here, though, is that none of them are true—and yet some government leaders and pundits keep spreading them.

This is reprehensible: not just because misinformation is reprehensible in itself, but because it makes serious dialogue—which might lead to a more satisfactory resolution—much more difficult.

This is nothing new, of course. With every issue du jour, it seems, comes at least one claim or well-turned phrase that subtly shapes public perceptions. That might be fine if the phrase precisely captured the truth of the issue at hand. Unfortunately, those who craft such phrases are often less interested in seeking out truth—or even dialogue—than in promoting their argument.

As an example, think of how Republicans have used the “tax and spend” label to taint legislation from Democrats, regardless of the merit of the particular bill at hand. (Don’t most bills—even those for the best programs—involve taxation and spending?) Or consider the phrase “a woman’s right to choose” (or even the terms pro-choice and pro-life), as if the entire complexity and delicacy of the abortion question could be boiled down to a single sound bite.

When we hear these words and phrases over and over, we automatically begin to assume that they’re the only way to think about the issue. To borrow a business cliché, these terms set the “box”—and make it more difficult to think outside it.

Health care reform is far too complex and nuanced an issue to reduce to sound bites, let alone wild rumors. Dialogue, in contrast, would help us explore those nuances and bring them into the light. But where do we start?

Maybe we start with questions. Last year, realizing how woefully ignorant I was about single-payer and HSAs and whatnot, I started asking questions about health care. Maybe the answers to the questions we raise would start a dialogue. Maybe the dialogue would take hold—and reach the people who make the decisions.

Idealistic? Perhaps. But dialogue has more potential to generate a satisfactory solution than the rumors do. So let’s start the conversation.