What the press should be biased for

Great post from Jay Rosen (my favorite media critic) on what the press should have a bias for.  Here’s my favorite parts from his list:

But there are things they can advocate for in a contested election— and other things they can legitimately oppose. Here is my list:

Pro-participation: Democracy is not a spectator sport. The more people who participate in the system the stronger it is. Journalists can safely advocate that people go out and vote. They can, I think, legitimately oppose efforts to discourage people from voting.

Pro-verification. “Did that actually happen?” “Is there good evidence for it?” “Can it be squared with what we know?” Journalists should reward with focused attention truth claims that can be verified, and they should penalize (by publicly doubting them) other claims that do not meet that test…

Against demagoguery. The attempt to gain power through a charismatic appeal to fear, prejudice, ignorance and an animus toward the “other” contradicts everything that principled journalists stand for. In the degree that such appeals succeed, they render impotent the basic acts of reporting and verification. When journalists combat demagogic argument they are not exceeding their brief. They are meeting their mission.

I have phrased these items as permissions: they are allowed to… they are on firm ground when… But it would be just as correct to use a term like obligations. If in covering the campaign journalists cannot stand up for informed participation, rigorous verification, a fact-based debate, real accountability; if they can’t find a way to oppose opacity and demagoguery, then they will sell themselves short and encourage the rest of us to tune them out.

And, of course, in a competitive electoral environment, this potentially has very real consequences (it certainly does in this one):

And now we come to the really hard part. When journalists press for the things I say they can press for; when they fight against what they ought to fight against, the results are unlikely to be “neutral.” They are going to wind up penalizing some candidacies more than others. If making stuff up to mobilize fear and prejudice is the political style to which a candidate has become attached, journalists will have to set themselves against that style. And they will have to call it by its proper names.

To committed supporters this will seem like joining the other team. It’s not, but it will seem so. [emphasis mine] There is no easy solution, especially at a time when institutional trust is bottoming out. But to feign neutrality toward the causes of ruin would be far worse.

To a not inconsiderable degree, I’d say we could judge the quality of a news organization by how willing they are to follow these values (or similar ones) that Rosen lays out as opposed to appearing neutral at all costs.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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