I was recently in the enviable position of sitting on a patio late at night, sipping beer while a bug zapper pleasantly crackled in the background.
I was in excellent company and the conversation was most stimulating; we’d solved the problem of their being too few doctors in the North and decided to turn our attention to journalism. I asserted that the line between news and opinion had become rather blurred lately and that I, as a journalist, shouldn’t be allowed to act as a filter between the facts and my audience.
My companions seemed to be taken aback by this statement and asked the question: “If you don’t filter the information, then what are you there for?”
It was a good question, and one that I admit I had to think about for a good while.
I was reminded about a segment I had listened to on NPR’s On the Media (OTM) podcast a few weeks back. The host presented the example of wild accusations regarding U.S. President Barack Obama’s country of birth and religious beliefs.
For those of you who have been in a fallout shelter for the past three years, some on the American right, commonly referred to as “birthers,” have asserted that Obama was born in Kenya — and therefore ineligible to hold the office of president under U.S. laws — and is a “secret Muslim.”
OTM’s hosts wrestled with the media paradox that modern journalists have found themselves in, being that a news journalist has a responsibility to present both sides of an issue to their audience and report on the things that newsmakers say, but by doing so they lend credibility to otherwise ridiculous arguments.
In the case of Obama, this means that when high-ranking American politicians, such as Florida Republican congressman Bill Posey, state publicly that they don’t believe Obama was born in the U.S., traditional news outlets have a responsibility to report it.
Unfortunately the act of discussing Obama’s country of birth lends credence and credibility to the birthers and their baseless assertions, reinforcing their dubious positions.
Florida pastor Terry Jones, who was involved in a Qur’an burning earlier this year, also used the media and its sense of responsibility to further his message.
By using the media against itself, a small minority of people — in Jones’s case, one man in almost seven billion — can appear to have widespread support.
One does not need to look to our southern neighbours to see an example of this tactic in action. The anti-global warming lobby, despite being comprised of a small minority of the population and lacking the support of mainstream scientists, have managed to convince some Canadians that they have a valid and scientifically supported position. They have done this by virtue of the fact that the media feels it has a responsibility to report both sides of an issue, no matter how small one side may be.
Author, noted atheist and friend of Darwinian evolution Richard Dawkins has stated on his blog that he will not debate Creationists. His — very simplified — reasoning being that to debate them offers an air of credibility to their arguments, no matter how absurd, and could give people the impression that Creationism science is a valid competitor to the theory of evolution.
In effect, Dawkins has taken on the role of “filter,” similar to how my friends felt I should act.
Given the damage that can be done by reporting all sides of an argument I can most definitely see the advantage to filtering information, but do you really want me to be the one who decides what information you’re provided with?
To be honest, even if you’re a regular Manitoban reader, you can’t know much about me or my beliefs and affiliations. To assume that I have your best interest at heart — and not those of some corporation, church or political group — would be a huge leap of faith on your part. This is why society has traditionally had a sacred covenant with journalists, trusting them to convey a story without bias or judgment. The problem with our modern world, in my extra-humble opinion, is that the term “journalist” doesn’t mean what it used to.
Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Brian Williams are/were journalists in the traditional sense, and yet these professionals — who rightfully earned the trust of millions — now share the stage with the likes of Glenn Beck and Geraldo Rivera, personalities on the Fox News network who are anything but unbiased.
The situation down south has become so confusing that The Daily Show host, John Stewart, a comedian — albeit an extremely intelligent and hilarious one — was recently voted the most trusted newscaster in America by a Time Magazine online poll.
While I love watching John Stewart and The Daily Show, to call him a “newscaster” with a straight face is about as absurd as calling Fox News a “news network.” Furthermore, the man makes no bones about the fact that he is a comedian first and foremost.
It might seem like I’m unfairly ripping on Fox News here, but I assure you I’m not. Just turn on your TV and I can almost guarantee that with in a few minutes you will have heard something about the News of the World scandal currently going on in the U.K., in which civilians’ phones were illegally tapped by “journalists” and police were allegedly bribed.
It’s almost unsurprising to learn that News of the World falls under Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. empire, along with the aforementioned Fox News — an organization that in my opinion may have irreparably damaged journalism’s good name in the 21st century.
So, back to the original question: Should someone like me be trusted by the public to act as a filter and weed out opinions that don’t deserve your time?
It’s a dangerous question, because as I’ve hopefully demonstrated, not filtering out opinions can have dire consequences, but paradoxically, you can’t blindly trust the people operating the filters.
The only real option is to trust your own instincts and regard anything you hear with a healthy dose of skepticism . . . which is what I should have told my friends on the patio.
A journalist, for lack of a better term, is a tool that brings you information and context. Your brain is a tool that decides what to trust and what to disregard. Both need to be functional for this system to work.