Whatever happened to fair and objective journalism?

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Whatever happened to fair and objective journalism?

October 3, 2022 -

A news anchor talks into a professional TV camera in a studio setting. © Gorodenkoff/stock.adobe.com

A news anchor talks into a professional TV camera in a studio setting. © Gorodenkoff/stock.adobe.com

A news anchor talks into a professional TV camera in a studio setting. © Gorodenkoff/stock.adobe.com

The news media may be biased in more ways than you think.

The liberal leanings of the mainstream media have been well-documented. But now the news has entered an era of partisanship—liberal and conservative—fraught with danger for our democracy, making it more important than ever that Christians exercise discernment.

Some media outlets still strive for fairness and objectivity. But these basic principles no longer seem to apply to the most extreme voices on the internet and the airwaves.

Why we believe the media is biased

New staff writer Nick Catoggio expressed similar concerns in explaining why he joined The Dispatch instead of working for another conservative outlet:

“The foundational assumption of conservative media is that, because big media is corrupt, its antagonists can never quite lose their moral superiority no matter how irresponsibly they behave. It’s not a coincidence that the mainstream media’s most vicious critics on the right are grassroots conspiracy theorists. The election was rigged, the vaccines don’t work, the FBI planted those documents at Mar-a-Lago. The media lies, so you’re free to reject their reality and substitute your own. Believe what you like without regret. The moral high ground is yours forever.”

Most media experts believe that some degree of bias is inevitable. Editorial decisions by reporters, editors, anchors, and producers can’t help but be shaped by their life experiences, even if they don’t realize it.

Interestingly, a Pew Research poll this year found that more than half of journalists believed that every side does not always deserve equal news coverage.

Seems outrageous, right?

But journalism scholars say that such an approach is necessary in an era of misinformation and lies.

Trump and journalistic objectivity

A front-page article in The New York Times during the 2016 presidential campaign reflected a sea change in the way the news media does its job. Three years later, President Donald Trump reflected that it was “a very important story.”

Under the headline “Trump Is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism,” Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg wrote that reporters who believed Trump posed a danger to the country faced a choice. Should they stick to the principles of fairness and objectivity they learned in journalism school or “throw out the textbook”?

In other words, should they use one set of rules for covering Trump and others like him and another set for everyone else?

As you might imagine, the Times story outraged Trump.

“They basically admitted they were frauds,” he told Esquire.

“And that’s the way it is”

Things have changed dramatically since Walter Cronkite, considered “the most trusted man in America,” anchored the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981. He closed his broadcasts by saying, “And that’s the way it is” and giving the date. In the interest of objectivity, he didn’t use the phrase when he ended the show with a commentary.

Increasingly, Americans don’t believe “that’s the way it is” when they watch television news or read a newspaper. Trust in those types of media outlets has dropped to record lows.

In fact, the 2020 report “Trust, Media and Democracy” by Gallup and the Knight Foundation showed that most Americans suspect that inaccuracies in reporting are intentional, designed to promote an agenda.

Chris Stirewalt, author of Broken News and a former political editor for Fox News, would disagree. He thinks the problem more often is left-leaning journalists “blind to the problem” of bias.

Journalism isn’t fiction

Most serious journalists regard their work as a sacred responsibility.

“I have worked in television and radio in a number of places, including Washington, and I can think of no journalist I’ve ever worked with who made up stories,” Rob Vaughn, a Christian, wrote for Religion Unplugged. “Not one.”

Vaughn, a leader in his church, anchors the news at WFMZ-TV in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He wrote an article headlined “What I Wish My Christian Friends Knew About The News Media” after fellow believers had a hard time understanding how he could be a Christian and a journalist.

“Are my friends wrong to see the mainstream media as rotten and ridden with ‘fake news’?” Vaughn wrote. “Yes. At least in significant ways, they have that wrong. Sure, we make mistakes. We have blind spots and faulty assumptions. But many of the criticisms are off the mark: they misunderstand what journalism is about; they feed a growing sense that there is no agreed upon reality and set of facts to which we can all refer; and, as a Christian, I fear they reflect poorly on people who say they love the truth.”

The radiating effects of news deserts

Those criticisms also overlook an important point: The internet has transformed the news. The public has access to more information from more sources in less time than ever before. But extremists on both sides of the political spectrum have gained a voice, and many of the most dependable mainstream sources have disappeared.

A report from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, “The State of Local News 2022,” noted that more than a fourth of the nation’s newspapers—2,500—have closed since 2005.

The internet has sapped newspapers of advertising revenue and made their print editions outdated even before they land on your lawn. As a result, a fifth of the population could soon live in “news deserts” with little or no access to local news, according to the report.

Stirewalt says newspapers “provide the backbone for news,” doing the reporting that frequently sets the agenda for TV and radio.

“Without newspapers or their digital equivalents, television news and radio just can’t do the kinds of work we as citizens need them to do,” Stirewalt wrote.

Local newspapers promote civic engagement and build community. There’s even evidence that their absence heightens political polarization.

“Reality is up for grabs”

The internet has also given a platform to unreliable sources of information.

“There’s no rule or law specifying that the freedom of open communication must rely on accurate information and righteous causes,” Sean Illing and Zac Gershberg wrote in The Paradox of Democracy. “A democracy permits every available means of persuasion, and people determine for themselves what facts they consider accurate and what causes they consider just.”

In the Digital Age, editors and producers who enforce ethical standards no longer hold sway at many outlets.

“Without gatekeepers, there are no constraints on discourse,” Illing and Gershberg wrote. “Digital technology has changed everything. Consequently, reality is up for grabs in a way it never has been before.”

When partisan outlets like Fox and MSNBC give completely different pictures of the news, figuring out the truth is more challenging than ever.

How can Christians discern the news?

Stirewalt recommends subscribing to a news source that you trust rather than relying on free sources of information that use “clickbait”—provocative or misleading content designed to increase web traffic and revenue.

Vaughn, the television anchor, advises Christians: “Read and watch broadly. Not just one cable network. Not just one online news site.”

Sample news from liberal and conservative media, not just outlets that match your own outlook.

After all, you may not realize what you don’t know.

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