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Though a mathematics major, I have an abiding love for the English language and a desire, fostered since childhood, to write for an audience. A Patchwork of Perceptions has provided an outlet for over three years now, and I’ve also had the honor, since January 2020, of contributing to the biannual ORMS Tomorrow student publication from INFORMS. (Shameless plug.)
At the beginning of this coronavirus pandemic and especially during the height of the United States presidential election season, I began to delve more deeply into the writing market, and journalism in particular. Last semester, my English professor in my Creative Writing course described the publication process and encouraged the students to write and to try publishing somewhere. The growth of the internet has opened innumerable opportunities.
Thus we enter the contentious atmosphere of the nebulous Media.1
Former President Trump called the press “truly the enemy of the people” and deemed many outlets “fake news.” As president-elect, he said that the media were among the “most dishonest human beings on Earth.” Former President Obama also, through administrative decisions, undermined press freedom. Going further back, Former President Nixon and his administration pushed the term “the media” because, according to speechwriter William Safire, “The press became ‘the media’ because the word had a manipulative, Madison Avenue, all-encompassing connotation, and the press hated it.”
Over the past decades, based off records starting in the 1970s when Gallup began polling U.S. adults on the topic, distrust of The Media has slowly grown among Americans compositely and among Republican voters specifically. In 2000, 59% of Democratic voters expressed a great deal or fair amount of trust and confidence in the mass media; 52% of Republicans voters expressed the same. In 2020, these statistics were 73% and 10%. Among independents, the difference was about 52% in 2000 and 36% in 2020.
In their 2020 American Views survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults, Gallup/Knight Foundation found that 81% of Americans agreed that the news media is “critical” or “very important” for democracy, but 83% also suspect “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of political bias in news coverage, 52% perceive a misrepresentation of facts, and 26% believe that reporters invent facts themselves.
On whether the attack on The Media is warranted, opinion divides roughly across political lines: In the survey, 58% of Republicans called the attacks justified while 66% of Democrats called them unjustified. Altogether, almost half of the participants blamed media for the country’s political division. (I reviewed the polarization in the United States in another post.)
Dr. Michael Schudson at the Columbia Journalism School explains in the Winter 2019 issue of Columbia Journalism Review that part of this change relates to the evolving norms of journalism. He discusses a “profound cultural shift in journalism” in which “[t]he limitations of straitjacketed objectivity2 came to be understood and journalism began to embrace the necessity of interpretation” and to become “less deferential than it once was to institutions and people in power”, which has introduced more bias3 that should be articulated rather than hand-waved away with corporate statements claiming otherwise.4
Whatever one makes of The Media and journalism today, its importance for a democracy cannot be denied. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson rightly wrote in a letter to a Mr. James Currie, “[O]ur liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”5 All these journalism musings brought me to the YouTube channel of Johnny Harris, a BYU (BA in International Relations) and American University (MA in International Peace and Conflict Resolution) graduate who reports on “interesting trends and stories domestically and around the globe.” His video on 7 things learned about journalism also emphasized this. It was this video that inspired me to write this post, and this video that I wanted to share with you here.6
- Objectivity is a myth.
- A lot of journalists write for their peers, not their audience.
- Journalism has a lot of very old customs and traditions.
- Journalism school isn’t always the best way to go.
- Journalism is economic in its very nature.
- Good writing is rare and beautiful.
- Good journalism is important.
- James Hamblin, staff writer at The Atlantic, notes that “while ‘the media’ is a term that most Americans use, many fewer can easily define it (at least according to my months of conversational field surveys).” Moreover, the use of this single term implies a monolithic entity instead of the “complex professional-commercial-personal-political ecosystem” that “the media is.”
- Interestingly, the concept of journalistic objectivity has existed for only about a century, and was articulated by Walter Lippmann, who said, “There is but one kind of unity possible in a world as diverse as ours. It is unity of method, rather than aim; the unity of disciplined experiment” (emphasis mine). That is, objectivity originally referred to method rather than aim.
- Bias is often thrown out as a dirty word to be much-maligned, and wielded to discredit XYZ author/outlet/what-have-you. The truth is that all humans are biased, and the pursuit of unbiased media will is fruitless. A piece devoid of editorial comment still has bias conveyed in what information is included and omitted and how that information is presented. The existence of bias does not necessarily imply an absence of truth in the writing or reporting.
- VVillyD’s answers on this Reddit thread provides worthy insights on media bias, reliability, and consumption.
- Most of the articles I skimmed on this topic used this exact quote. Makes a person feel original.
- If you have the time, I also enjoyed his breakfast videos, the first of which traces the dessert-ification of American breakfasts and the second of which explores breakfast in other countries (Japan, Israel-Palestine, and Mexico/Texas).