Media Failures

Richard Miniter has a cute piece on what he calls “Media Failures” on his blog. He highlight three kinds of bias: story, location and source.

We're all familiar with story bias. For example, shark bites and firearms accidents are reported well out of proportion with the number of incidents compared to, say, child drownings and deaths caused by incorrect prescriptions. Miniter applies this idea to Iraq:

The press rightly covers the so-called insurgency's bomb attacks. (No one calls them what they are: anti-democratic terrorists.) But they do not prominently cover the American military's many counter-attacks.

He attributes some of the story bias on location bias: the reporters are simply not where they can see the American successes anymore.

It is no accident that the general tone of the coverage changed when the major newspapers and networks stopped participating in the “embed” program. (The embed program is not dead; a U. S. Army Ranger officer told me in Baghdad that the military is actually begging journalists to participate.)

Location bias happens elsewhere, too. How many times have you seen a story about something you know about but the reporter was too lazy to come down to the scene and figure things out? Location bias can cause factual and continuity errors in journalistic reporting, far worse than seeing a movie shot in a location you know well. Portland-area moviegoers laugh at Short Circuit where the intrepid Number Five watches the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean in Astoria, but how often do we laugh at the press when they can't get basic geography right?

Location goes beyond geography, of course, but the point is that journalists report about things where they are, and not where they aren't.

The last bias Miniter covers is towards sources:

Many networks use “fixers,” Arabic speakers who bring local officials and community leaders to be interviewed (either “on background” or on the record). For better or worse, these fixers essentially decide who is interviewed.

The Press folks I run into keep a stable of experts on a variety of subjects they go to again and again. Anti-gun activists are particularly good at getting their own people installed as experts on firearms legislation so they can spin events in their favor. When I go to the Press with my credentials (NRA Training Counselor, a person that trains and recommends firearms instructors for certification) they ignore me as a “pro-gun activist.” Yet, I have more real knowledge of firearms, firearms instruction, and firearms effects than your typical Brady Center zealot.

In Iraq, people who should be heard are also ignored:

As a result of this source bias, the American media has overlooked key emerging figures such as Mithal Jamal Hussein Al-Alusi, a liberal Iraqi politician, or the outgoing Iraqi Minister of Human Rights, who holds press conferences that the English-language press doesn't bother to attend.

Ann Althouse has commented on a piece Adam Cohen writes for the New York Times about journalistic ethics. Cohen advocates a code of conduct for bloggers. (You may recall that I wrote about a Weblog Code of Ethics before.)

Althouse isn't receptive.

The journalistic code didn't keep Jordan and Rather in line. It was the bloggers, invoking their own standards—not a code but an evolving culture—that called them to account. Any bloggers with any kind of high profile will be similarly called to account if they violate the blogosphere's cultural norms. And Jordan and Rather can take up blogging any minute they want. Our practice is open to anyone who wants to join.

That's the whole power that bloggers have brought to the Information Age. Because the information is readily researched and posted and searchable and linkable a whole new form of fact-checking has emerged to combat media failures.

Josh Poulson

Posted Sunday, May 8 2005 07:47 AM

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