Published on January 26th, 2019 | by Zachary Shahan
January 26th, 2019 by Zachary Shahan
Journalists have a very special duty. They are critical to any democratic society and to any free market — or for semi-democratic societies and semi-free markets, as it turns out in the real world. I am a bit cautious about criticizing journalists or the media with any kind of blanket statements. Such criticisms are popular these days, but they are generally oversimplified and often incorrect. That said, many journalists would do well to revisit their underlying mission, as would many of the executives at major media agencies. Everything is not about money, despite what some have convinced themselves.
One common error journalists and others in the media make these days is thinking that their job is to just present different arguments about a specific topic — just be a microphone for debate, not having any say in the subject themselves. That might sound good superficially — “hey, we should listen to all sides of a debate, right?” — but that’s not the purpose of journalism or the media overall, and the inherent problem with that approach to journalism can reveal itself with just a couple of examples.
Using that system for covering the news, a journalist or media host could choose to present arguments from scientists and flat-earthers debating whether the Earth is flat or not. That may sound ridiculous and you may think my example isn’t relevant because it’s so far-fetched. However, the media very commonly does this with established science, like climate science, presenting pollution-backed talking points not based in science alongside actual climate science. The anti-scientific talking points are often spouted by by representatives of political organizations like The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, but despite being as ridiculous as claims that the Earth is flat, news outlets frequently treat them like they’re valid arguments. They act like we need to have this debate, like we need to debate whether or not the Earth is flat. No, we don’t need to debate such things. Actually, the media needs to do a better job of ignoring debates around topics where we have clear evidence one side is right and one is wrong.
It’s stunning that this happens with established science, but it also happens with “softer” topics, like various political matters. We have all been witness to the facts being disregarded in preference of debate. We have all seen, whether we realize it or not, that debate is often prioritized over getting to the actual truth on a matter.
As an example, journalists have been critical to uncovering numerous illegal and immoral activities conducted by the Trump campaign, the Trump administration, and the Trump Organization — yet they and media hosts also give a tremendous amount of time to obviously incorrect and misleading claims from political talking heads and Trump himself. Sadly, they neglect to correct much of it due to the constraints they put themselves under, and and they repeatedly provide airtime to known liars — seemingly just for the vein purpose of misleading debate. As strange as it is, we are witnessing a stunning dereliction of duty at the same time that some journalists are showing why the free and independent press is so critical to democratic society.
Another common error journalists make is assuming their job is simply to uncover information, or uncover interesting information. Actually, their job is to try to uncover the truth — about whatever overall story or topic they write about.
That can mean trying to uncover the genuine truth about the economy. That can mean trying to uncover the genuine truth about US politics. That can mean trying to uncover the genuine truth about the state of our planet. Or that can mean trying to uncover the genuine truth about certain businesses. No matter the subject, the core aim should be trying to pursue the truth in as broad and useful a context as possible — not a few facts here or there, or a few emotions here or there, but how they fit into the grand scheme of things.
That is the duty of journalists and the media.
I feel like there are a couple of arenas where a legion of journalists actually excel at this, but even then they are mixed in with journalists and talking heads who completely miss the point and thus muddy the waters.
And then there are topics where media coverage disappointing almost entirely across the board. There are certain topics that, for whatever reason, journalists uniformly fail to get to the core of the story and then portray it to the public somewhat correctly.
This article started with one purpose: to remind people in the media to not just dig and throw sand around indiscriminately, to not just give a microphone to anyone with a high-rolling title, but to pursue with as much focus and as high a view as possible the core truth of the story or topic they are covering. One can dream, right?
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