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Monday, December 2, 2013

8 Reasons Why 6 Out Of 10 Don't Trust The News Media


"Is Paul Walker really dead?" This was a question I heard over and over this weekend. The reason? Reports were running rampant that Mr. Walker was not actually dead, but that it was a hoax to generate buzz for his latest Fast and Furious 7 movie. 

You and I both have seen this over and over. Inaccuracies reported in the news media. No wonder many have a healthy skepticism about just about everything anymore. In fact, in the United States, a 2012 Gallup poll asked people “how much trust and confidence” they had in the accuracy, fairness, and completeness of the news reports of newspapers, TV, and radio. The answer from 6 out of 10 people was either “not very much” or “none at all.”  Is such distrust justified? 

If you talk to any journalists and the organizations they work for, most express a robust commitment to producing accurate and informative reports. I know many journalists who are of high integrity. Yet, there is reason for concern. Consider the following factors:

1) MEDIA MOGULS. A small but very powerful number of corporations own primary media outlets. Those outlets exert a strong influence on which stories get covered, how they are covered, and how prominently they are covered. Because most corporations are designed for profit, decisions made by media outlets can be motivated by economic interests. Stories that may hamper the profits of the owners of a news organization may go unreported. 

2) ADVERTISING. Media outlets must make money in order to stay in business, and most of it comes from advertising. In the United States, magazines get between 50 and 60 percent of their revenue from advertising, newspapers 80 percent, and commercial television, radio and websites 100 percent. Understandably, advertisers do not want to sponsor programs that cast an unfavorable light on their products or style of management. If they do not like what a news outlet is producing, they can advertise elsewhere. Knowing this, editors may suppress news stories that cast a negative light on sponsors.

3) DISHONESTY. Prepare yourself, not all reporters are honest. (I know, it's a shocker.) Some journalists fabricate stories. A few years ago, for example, a reporter in Japan wanted to document how divers were defacing coral in Okinawa. After not finding any vandalized coral, he defaced some himself and then took photos of it. Photos can also be manipulated to deceive the public. (Another shocker.) Photograph-altering technology has become more effective, and some manipulations are practically impossible to detect.

4) SPIN. Even if facts are as solid as bricks, how they are presented depends on the judgment of the journalist. What facts should be included in a story, and which should be left out? A football team, for example, may have lost a game by one point. That is a fact. But why the team lost is a tale that a journalist can tell in many ways.

5) OMISSION. In arranging facts to create a compelling story, journalists often exclude details that would introduce complications or unresolved issues. This causes some facts to be exaggerated, others to be diminished or flat out ignored. Because television anchors and reporters may sometimes need to tell a complex story in a minute or so, important details can be skipped. This happened to me recently. A television reporter interviewed me about prescription lenses for Google Glass. I told her clearly that we were in no way attached to or partnered with Google. She said ok and that she fully understood. Just a couple of hours later, the segment that ran on TV was titled "Google Partners with Local Company". Arghh...

6) COMPETITION. In recent years, as the number of news channels have multiplied, the amount of time viewers spent digesting news from just one station fell drastically. To keep viewers interested, news channels were compelled to offer something unique or entertaining. Commenting on this development, the book Media Bias states: “The news became a running picture show, with images selected to shock or titillate, and stories shortened to match an [ever-shorter] attention span on the part of viewers.” - Actually sounds spot on.  

7) MISTAKES. Because they are human, journalists make honest mistakes. A misspelled word, a misplaced comma, an error in grammar—these can all distort the meaning of a sentence. Facts may not be carefully checked. Numbers too can easily trip up a journalist who, in the scramble to meet a deadline, might easily type 10,000 instead of 100,000.

8) FALSE ASSUMPTIONS. Cutting honest journalists a little slack. Accurate reporting is not as easy as some might think. What seems to be a fact today may be proved wrong tomorrow, if that long. The earth, for example, was once believed to be the center of our solar system. Now we know that the earth circles the sun.

A Need For Balance

While it is wise not to believe everything we read in the news, it does not follow that there is nothing we can trust. The key may be to have a healthy skepticism, while keeping an open mind.

Some factors to weigh:
  • PROVIDER: Does the report come from a credible, authoritative person or organization? Does the program or publication have a reputation for seriousness or for sensationalism? Who provide the funds for the news source?
  • SOURCES: Is there evidence of thorough research? Is the story based on just one source? Are the sources reliable, fair, and objective? Are they balanced, or have they been selected to convey only one point of view?
  • PURPOSE: Ask yourself: ‘Is the news item primarily to inform or entertain? Is it trying to sell or support something?’
  • TONE: When the tone of a news item is angry, spiteful, or highly critical, it suggests that an attack is under way and not a reasoned argument.
  • CONSISTENCY: Are the facts consistent with those in other articles or reports? If stories contradict one another, be careful!
  • TIMELINESS: Is the information recent enough to be acceptable? Something thought to be correct 20 years ago may be discounted today. On the other hand, if the news item is a breaking story, it may lack complete and comprehensive information.
So, can you trust the news media? Do you? For me, it depends on the record they have built up over time. But what are your thoughts?