Monday, April 4, 2011

Credibility: Corporate-owned Media versus the Internet

     Probably the most oft-repeated accusation against the corporate-owned news media is that they’re biased. Probably the most oft-repeated accusation against Internet reporting of the news is that there are many inaccuracies on the Internet.
     Both accusations are true. Perhaps not surprisingly, both accusations are true of both forms of reporting.
     Let’s first look at the matter of media bias. On my first day of journalism class at the University of South Carolina in 1977, my professor taught that bias is simply the framework by which we interpret the world around us. Bias is both inevitable and essential.
     Every minute of every day, every sentient being—that includes us—is bombarded with so much information that we can’t absorb it all. To avoid sensory overload, our minds create a model that, to us, represents the world as it is. We unconsciously filter out things that don’t fit the model. Things that do fit the model are assigned proper places and rankings in our mental map of that model.
     In one respect, these mental maps differ from the familiar diagrams known as mind maps. Mind maps often contain symbols signifying how we are to respond to certain information. Each item we fit into our mental map is a word or phrase, an item of information, and a symbol.
     This process, which is called semiotics, is necessary for survival and to simplify decision making. For example, when a cat sees a strange dog, the cat’s mental map detects the dog, the danger the dog represents, and possibly the cat’s manner of expressing the word dog. If cats somehow became unbiased and had to think everything through from scratch, cats would soon become extinct. With experience, a cat may adjust its mental model enough to accept a particular dog; but, in the general sense, dog still represents danger.
      I further explain the function of bias in part two of the three-part series “How News Reporting Really Works.”
     Semiotics doesn’t have the same results for all animals or for all humans. A dog may look at his master and think, “He feeds me, shelters me, loves me, and provides for all my other needs. He must be a god.” A cat is more likely to look at his master and think, “He feeds me, shelters me, loves me, and provides for all my other needs. I must be a god.”
     What we call media bias is usually one of two things: Either the reporter fails to account for differences in his perceptions and the perceptions of others; or the reporter has agenda that he allows to influence the way he reports the news. If his agenda get in the way of his reporting, it may be unconscious or deliberate.
     We all know that bloggers and other unpaid Internet reporters and commentators have agenda. But so do reporters and commentators working for the corporate-owned media.
There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t tell my students, “The truth is out there, but so are lies.”
     The corporate-owned media today is in the same situation as the university-trained doctors found themselves after the A.D. 1450 or so. For the first time in human history, university-trained doctors found themselves in direct competition with traditional healers. They responded by branding their competition witches and charlatans. After all, every educated person “knew” that leeches and bloodletting were more scientific and effective than herbs, foods, and other  unproven cures. They were the very people who, as recently as the 1850s, persecuted Ignaz Semmelweis for saying that doctors should wash their hands.
     In those days, doctors were also barbers. Some doctors are still barbarous.
     This competition went beyond the superficial matter of affecting opinions. With the help of government and the church, they actively influenced the model by which people perceived the issue. They would be perceived as the “medical community,” while natural healers would be seen—at best—as “alternative.”
     They got away with and continue to get away with it because of the relationships they enjoy with people in positions of power, including the corporate-owned information media. The Internet provides the most effective voice for competing information.
     It has often been said that the corporate-owned media can’t control what we think; but, by choosing which stories to cover, they can control what we think about. That’s not entirely true. By representing themselves as the only reliable source of news, and representing the Internet as an unreliable alternative, the corporate-owned media can affect the public’s model of reality.
For examples of unreliable and outright dishonest reporting, see the four-part series “How News Reporting Really Works,” and the companion piece “Sometimes They Lie.” (To begin reading this series, click here.)  (I make further references to problems in the corporate-owned news media in the five-part series “How Washington Really Works.” To begin reading this series, click here.)
     More blatant examples of media dishonesty have recently come to my attention. It would be too easy to dismiss Glenn Beck as a fool, but close inspection of him and his methods—and the fact that he keeps his job—show that he and his bosses are thoroughly dishonest.
     Picture for a moment someone like Glenn Beck reporting on the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. The earlier version of Beck tells us that some Roman Catholic Italians entered a garage and viciously murdered six Jews and a garage mechanic. Over and over he reminds us that the killers were Italian Catholics and that most of the victims were Jews.
     The way this 1920s Glenn Beck tells it, it would be easy to get the impression that the Italian Catholics were acting from religious conviction and ethnic type. That seems to be the general idea. Instead of blaming the criminals for criminal behavior, we’re expected to blame the religion or the ethnic group.
     Glenn Beck and other disinformation specialists are pimps for banks and corporations that profit from war, other conflicts, and other disasters.
     He and others like him make a regular practice of finding examples of criminality by poor immigrants, Palestinians, and other peoples whose voices can not be amplified by profits or the profit motive. It’s the Internet that gives voice to the voiceless.
     Bias, agenda, and inaccuracies can be found in both the corporate-owned media reports and the independent media of the Internet. For that reason, a more workable model of reality would be to suspect, examine, and judge the reliability of all sources in both the corporate-owned media and the independent media. For the sake of Truth and Justice, this should be our model.

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