The idea of journalism being an adversarial “pillar of democracy” is laughable, as I have written a few times on this site before. One of the books I am reading at the moment, Merchants of Doubt, provides examples of how the “fairness” and “balance” aspects of journalism, however desirable in theory, are corrupt and abused in practice. As “conservative intellectuals” of the Internet age love to say, facts don’t care about your feelings, folks.
Perhaps the simplest explanation I can give is the blunt one that cycles through Twitter on occasion:
“If one person says it is raining and another person says it is not, your job [as a journalist] is not to report both sides but to stick your head out the fucking window and find out.”
But, as can probably be deduced by that saying existing in the first place, much of the media landscape tends to not follow this rather common-sense notion of keeping to what is provable and true. Sure, there are occasions where opinion does matter, and debates over such ideas should always be encouraged so as to reach the most just and beneficial conclusion. When fact is contested, however, it is a disservice to truth and the people when this rhetoric flourishes.
The first example Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway give in Merchants of Doubt is the campaigning carried out by the tobacco companies. For decades, despite there being known links between their product and health issues (as far back as Nazi Germany, but rediscovered in the 1950’s in the US), these companies maintained a public “debate” over the legitimacy of these claims, and for some time won court cases against people who were victims to this intentional negligence and active suppression.
Beyond the usual lobbying, these groups also spread their misinformation through the media by invoking the Fairness Doctrine. If people (scientists, doctors, health officials, etc.) can get anti-tobacco views published in the media, then surely it is only fair that pro-tobacco interests can combat that with their own coverage? And I agree – they should have a platform to express these views, as anyone should have the right to express whatever they wish.
This does not mean simply reporting on these views or giving them equal weight when the consequences of doing so are clearly negative. The science was in – smoking was linked to numerous health concerns, and all that was left was sifting through relatively negligible uncertainties and cementing our understanding of the facts. Reporting the views of tobacco companies without criticising them and calling it out for what it is – corporate distortion and criminal – cannot be called balance, it is propaganda.
In time, the smoking debate was settled, there is nothing else to argue over. Everyone knows the health risks associated with smoking, and today the challenge is addiction and opposing lobbying to have regulations over advertising and packaging removed. As usual, however, lessons of history aren’t heeded, and still we suffer the barrage of “balanced” reporting on a number of issues where there really is no balance to be found.
Climate change is the obvious topic to point at, so much so it hardly needs me to waste time on it. As with smoking, doubt is peddled by those with vested interests in keeping the fossil fuel industry afloat, with much more political power and a severe impact on the discourse between average persons. You get absurd conspiracies about “globalist” powers working with “socialists” to push a “lefty-green” agenda, whatever any of those terms mean and whatever implications they entail – they only ever seem to have surface level accusations.
Journalism, if it truly wishes to be adversarial, should not be sitting back parroting talking points from either “side” in this discussion. The people involved should be critically analysing everything said and scrutinise it against truthful facts (emphasised to differentiate it from the absurd “alternative facts” bullshit). The idea that a coal lobbyist or a political party with a donor list including fossil fuel giants have any legitimacy in a conversation about climate change is pathetic, and any journalist or media outlet from Murdoch to the ABC should be lambasted for allowing this “debate” to continue.
When concrete scientific fact points towards a particular conclusion, to deny it or argue the opposite is true is your prerogative, but anyone even vaguely concerned with the truth should absolutely call you out on it. As “pillars of democracy”, media figures and outlets need to actually practice what they preach and be adversarial. No matter which viewpoint you are covering, challenge it – make those who champion a particular cause defend their stance and then compare it with the facts at hand.
If that method, carried out by honest and nonpartisan journalists, results in what some call “bias” towards certain arguments, then the issue is not with the political leanings of the journalist or outlet, but in your incorrect view. Sadly, very few, especially in the mainstream, actually carry out this courageous work.
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