In the Tulsa World newspaper in December, Jay Cronley – a long time writer for the paper – wrote a column titled “It’s time for the media to play nice or go home”. I thought this was interesting for a couple of reasons: a) Conley doesn’t write on the editorial page, and his columns are usually light and airy – this one was heavier and could have been on the editorial page. b) The column was critical of reporters which is unusual for a news paper full of reporters.
He says that “Prominent people are being driven from the public eye by bad form displayed by media members and inappropriate questions.” He says that today it is thought that a good question is one that makes the person being interviewed mad. “Bias often causes reporters to seem to be out to get a particular person instead of getting to know him or her better”, he says.
I think he has a point. It hasn’t always been that way, but there are a few things that have happened in the last several decades that have brought this about. I believe that some of the significant things that have happened are the following:
- “Watergate”: Nixon probably needed to resign, but the worse thing that happened in that situation was not that the president had to resign, it was that reporters Woodward and Bernstein got rich and famous. That led to a whole generation of would-be investigative reporters who focused on finding a snake under every rock. In that environment, a good interviewer was said to be one who asked the “hard questions”. What is a “hard question”? In time it would seem that a measure of that would be if the question made the person being interviewed mad.
- Science and education: Most of our issues today are related to the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering & math) plus economics. Colleges and Universities used to require some courses in these subjects regardless of one’s major. Today schools that used to have that requirement are getting away from these “required courses” in the first two years and are giving the students more freedom to take anything they want. There are other courses that require less work and are more fun. George Will wrote a Column recently that said essentially that higher education was a house divided. Science, engineering, and math departments live by the “reality principle”. Get the relationship between the variables wrong and the result will tell you unconditionally that you erred. The humanities and social science subjects are not as rigorous. He provided information that supported the conclusion that the “hard science” departments in most U.S. Universities are more accepting of different ideas (in his terms “freedom of speech”). He provided information on several instances where speakers were barred from campuses because of objections from humanity and social science departments and those objection were not supported by the science and engineering faculty. The speakers were supporting positions which were considered to be “unconventional” ideas and explanations by the objecting faculty. I would guess that most of today’s media reporters come out of those academic departments not wanting to hear “unconventional” ideas which likely contributes to what Conley sees as “bias”.
- Knowledge of the problem or issue: Of course the other problem a lack of scientific, engineering, or economic knowledge causes is that most reporters often don’t really understand the problem or the issues of the day. As an engineer, I have heard or read several things reported in the last few years where the reporters lack of knowledge of the situation was obvious and almost comical. Reporters come out of college with ability to write well, but do they know what to write about? This no doubt leads to the “dumb question” which is not as bad as the hostile question, but doesn’t give the person being interviewed the confidence that what they say will be reported correctly.
While I have not had any formal training in journalism, I have been told that the relevant questions that need to be addressed are the “w” questions of Who? What? When? Where? and Why? In my estimation the news media does a pretty good job with the first four of these. The problems come with the “why” question. The first of these “W” questions are pretty factual and straight forward. The “why” question is often much more complex, analytical and speculative. It usually requires some specific knowledge of the situation and it’s background. In more than one case books have been written about “why ” an event happened. Watergate was an example. We knew early on who broke in to what and where it was and when it happened. But the investigative reporting was around “why” did those guy do that? The same was true of Enron. Investigative reporting is around the “why” question. If the assumption is that someone covers something up then the hostile questions are perhaps justified. But most events probably don’t involve illegal or immoral intentions. But it does usually require some educated understanding of the situation. But when reporters go in looking for a snake under every rock and asking hostile or dumb questions, it probably causes the people with helpful knowledge to withhold information that might help the public avoid similar things in the future.
All this in not helped by the level of competition in the media business. The conventional wisdom – which probably has some validity – is that sensational reporting sells papers and draws TV viewers. Honest mistakes are usually accepted and forgiven, but if the cause is selfish or criminal intentions then the story will be sensational (and the people doing the reporting may get rich and famous). With newspapers struggling to survive and the many TV news channels competing for viewers, the managing editors are probably much more inclined to publish sensationalized stories than what they did 30 or 40 years ago. The sensational stories have always gone on the front page – “if it bleeds, it leads” – and the corrections and retractions which may come days later, are buried in the middle or back page.
The American voters need some honest and balanced reporting to understand the issues and vote intelligently. As the media claims to be a service to the public, but the public would be better served with more information on the nature of today’s problems and the logic for various different approaches to their solutions. At the moment I think we need some improvement in more useful and objective reporting, but it will take some honest assessment and desire on the media’s part for that to happen.
My thanks to Jay Cronley for having the courage to be critical of his industry.