Is the media a credible source of information?Monday, June 07, 2021
Leroy Binns and Nekiesha Burchell
According to distinguished Professor Michael Bugesja, of Iowa State University, “Objectivity is seeing the world as it is and not how you wish it was.” While too often ignored, this statement strikes a chord through readings on the media and communications.
Steven Maras's text, entitled Objectivity in Journalism, is a quest on the impact of objectivity on journalism's practices and relationship to power, whereas Lewis Wallace's The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity advocates for fairness and rigour the missing facets of objectivity in media reportage.
Unfortunately, despite the passage of time and numerous enquires — counting the 2008 joint Pew's Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism/Shorenstein Center study of media coverage on the character of presidential candidates during the primaries — an inability to dislodge and replace deliberate censorship by the media with reality promotes a continuum of compelling fabrication that underpins unexpected scenarios. A noteworthy illustration is the current political divide engulfing the United States of America.
The rejection of Donald Trump at the polls in November of 2020 by approximately 7 million votes signals the start of a new era in American politics. His refusal to concede defeat along with the unsuccessful recounts in six states — Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania — spiralled into an appalling insurrection on the nation's capital, the circumstances surrounding the trouncing of both US Republican senators in Georgia which ultimately resulted in the loss of the upper chamber of Congress, revision of electoral laws in some southern states, a current audit of the votes in Arizona, a splintered Republican Party, and mounting racial unrest.
On close observation Norman Fairclough's critical discourse analysis and its description and interpretation of function with social and historic implications coincides with the dissemination of the aforementioned troubling events. This approach speaks volumes to structural relationships highlighted by dominance, power, and control manifested through language which, of course, is orchestrated by a segment of the media on Trump's behalf.
In accordance with Fairclough's critical discourse analysis (CDA), the media (for example, Fox News, One America and Breitbart News Networks) has capitalised on both characteristics of strengths, for example, capacity and access; and deficiencies (for example, irresponsible broadcasting) to manipulate its audience directly or through Trump surrogates in propagating varied interpretations of the truth at a time of vulnerability in a country steeped in fragmentation.
A barrage of some common examples of such conduct bolstered by the attributes of competence and authority includes reprehensible inaccuracies; deceased and illegal immigrants voting; some citizens voting twice; mail-in voting subject to fraud and abuse, Democrats conniving to destroy ballots; the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden planning to raise taxes on most Americans; and the vice-presidential candidate declared a socialist. While both right-wing media and their nominee fell short of the intended result, the outgoing, twice impeached, one-term occupant of the White House was the recipient of 74 million votes thanks to the prowess and unscrupulous nature of elements of public and social media.
Said media that has the dispensation to exercise free speech and an obligation to sustain accountability is in breach of principles aligned with the latter for various reasons. Journalist Joe Ferullo observes, “Some new consumers who insist they want a product they can trust really want something that reflects their own self portrait. In a sense they see journalism as something like a fashion choice or a car purchase — an image-building exercise.” Such egotistical behaviour translates to a wide range of issues. For example, without filter, some media outlets have consistently added oil to the fire by providing a clearing house for repetitive fabricated recitals of theft, fraud and socialism. Consequently the post-election nightmare led to three-fourths of Republicans believing the election was wrongfully awarded to Joe Biden. The distortion in prolonging the big lie of a stolen election plays to an atmosphere clouded by fear and diversion. Worst yet, such comportment is a dereliction of duty that brings into question the role of media houses in a democratic society.
To prevent an ongoing onslaught of substance and values with narratives of fake news by the reckless depiction of factions of the media, one writer, Wesley Lowery, is suggesting what he calls moral clarity. “Government,” he says, “by the people depends on voters being exposed to different points of view, but it also requires the media to fight misinformation. So that means journalists should strive to present a variety of political arguments to their audiences. But they need to be based in reality and presented honestly. Alternately, political arguments that gain currency but are in bad faith, particularly those that are racist, sexist, inhumane, or anti-democratic should be clearly identified as such.” Another proposal implies journalists must be free and encouraged to “adjudicate factual disputes”. Yet, how does one sustain that level of independence?
The growing debate is validated by an assessment process with a concentration in balance. Such entails the expansion of the portfolio of journalists to include sources from various positions and of similar standing; be it status, influence, and/or access to information for the best possible conclusions. In addition, there is also an added external dimension to the solution. Besides input through individual academics, think tanks assessments are encouraged in partnership with foundations and universities, and initiatives referred to as crowdsourcing have been conceptualised to promote online interactions.
A classic example of the former is a previously acknowledged arrangement with the Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism financed in part by the Pew Charitable Trust and Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press and endorsed by Politics and Public Policy, an affiliate of Harvard's John F Kennedy School of Government. In short the group is commonly known for conducting content studies of news coverage and analysis of industry trends, whereas the Shorenstein Center addresses qualitative analysis on areas of the press, politics, and public policy. With respect to crowdsourcing, a mass collaboration is accommodated by Web 2.0 that absorbs numerous websites as sources of assessment for gathering content referred by readers.
Tightening the screws come with recommendations from a 2009 White Paper entitled 'Best Practices in Assessing Objectivity and Balance'. It suggests formal polices and procedures for examination of objectivity and balance in public broadcasting in conjunction with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Inspector General's Report. This, of course, would entail the convening with stakeholders in the broadcasting community and conducting conferences in support of set guidelines outlined by the parties involved.
Thus far, past experiments seem promising. As early as 1971, the Ford Foundation, along with 10 acclaimed academics at the behest of Fred Friendly, the former CBS News president, developed a qualitative initiative on the social impact of public television. This would later spark a public broadcast survey facility but, following a set of trendsetting studies between the years 1972 and 1975, the alliance was disbanded on grounds of sustainable financing. Markle Foundation would later suffer a similar fate in 1975 as its call for a public telecommunication research council failed to materialise.
Admittedly, as a word of caution regarding a tectonic shift, 'Media literacy: Does objectivity exist in the media?' repeats a customary criticism: Instead of trying to answer the question of whether there is any objectivity left in the media today, it is perhaps more important to recognise that no matter what the issue is, different sources are always going to report about it in a different way, and objectivity may become somewhat relative.
However, with an obsession by many onlookers to bring a sense of liability to a dominant predicament with untold implications, revisitation of the foretold trials and the initiation of others may yield envisioned outcomes.
The above is co-authored by Leroy A Binns, PhD, lecturer in the Department of Government at The University of the West Indies, Mona (WJC), and Nekiesha Burchell, communications advisor in the Ministry of National Security. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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