"News Judgment," Oh Where Have You Been?

Digby linked to this excellent piece by Edward Wasserman in the Miami Herald the other day and I just got around to reading it. He basically solves th

Digby linked to this excellent piece by Edward Wasserman in the Miami Herald the other day and I just got around to reading it. He basically solves the news problem that we face.

You know, like how bogus claims are repeated endlessly throughout the media (like the health bill contains "death panels") and even though they are debunked---the damage is already done.

So this time, when it came to the "death panels," The Washington Post's influential media reporter, Howard Kurtz, observed: "For once, mainstream journalists did not retreat to the studied neutrality of quoting dueling antagonists." Reporters took the additional step of pointing out, on their own authority, that the proposals don't contain any such provision. To "he said, she said," was added: "we say."

Trouble is, it hasn't really mattered. Even though news organizations debunked the claim, 45 percent of respondents to an NBC poll still believe the reforms would indeed allow the federal government to halt treatment to the elderly -- a staggering number.

Why? Maybe because, by Kurtz's count, Palin's "death panels" were mentioned 18 times by his own paper, 16 times in The New York Times and at least 154 times on cable and network news (not including daytime news shows.)

Plainly, refuting a falsehood doesn't keep it from doing harm. The solution isn't some cheap fix, first giving end-of-the-world play to some incendiary fantasy and then inserting a line that says the preceding was utter rubbish. The real problem goes to the core of traditional news practices. As Greg Marx noted in a sensible Columbia Journalism Review posting, the solution is "making a more concerted effort not to disseminate false or dubious claims in the first place."

Isn't that simple? All the media has to do is fact check a story first and present the truth instead of repeating lies over and over again in the interest of "balance". Then we won't have to worry about an ill-informed public not getting the information they need on important issues. Issues that actually have an impact on their lives, like health care. Unfortunately, that appears too much to ask:

As the saying goes, what really matters isn't what people think, it's what they think about: Debunking falsehoods is fine, but the more that news media embrace it as if it's a cure-all, the worse we'll all be. The solution isn't to refute, it's to ignore. End the practice of rewarding the most sensational, the most irresponsible, the most baseless allegations with top-of-the-news billing. The media bury worthwhile news all the time; how about burying the worthless stuff?

There, however, the problem isn't so much with reporters, it's with their bosses, the ones who insist on running the screaming footage from "town meetings," on giving dramatic lies a prominence they don't deserve -- ensuring an audience, but also ensuring the lies a public life no reasoned refutation can end.

"He said, she said" has always been a dubious way to report the world. "We say" helps, but only a little. The real solution is simple: It's called news judgment.

Don't you love that? "News Judgment." What a miraculous concept. I wonder how we could actually make that happen?

Thank Edward for this rare bit of sanity from the media: edward_wasserman@hotmail.com

About John Amato

Comments

We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.