Sunday, December 9, 2012

9/12/2012: ListGate and journalistic biases

Breda O'Brien's piece on the issue of press and media independence published today by the Irish Times is likely to provoke - over the next few days - some heated polemic both in the media and amongst the readers. Knowing the level of vitriol that is out there toward the views of various opinion writers, opinion makers and journalists (including those who combine all three endeavors in one person) in our divided society, it is not my intention to start or re-direct the above polemic. I hold my own views, and on some issues, I prefer to keep these views private.

But I would like to make an observation or two on the issue of media independence, reporting biases and personal beliefs. These come from my own experience, both as a person occasionally / often writing for press, and as a person who used to hold a position of an editor of a publication.

Based on these experiences, and a bunch of my on biases, undoubtedly, I must say that the #listgate 'scandal' is misplaced.

Journalists have a right to hold their own beliefs and they have a right to express these beliefs freely. That these two inalienable rights can create a conflict with the ethos and ethics of independent reporting is a natural matter of life. These conflicts cannot be legislated against or regulated against without destroying these rights. Nor, for that precise reason, should such legislating or regulating be contemplated in the society that supports freedom and liberty.

A journalist has a right - an inalienable right - to attend any legal demonstration or join a legal organization or partake in a legal action of their choice. Full stop. A journalist has a right - an inalienable right - to express their view on any subject relating to any organization, action or demonstration. Including a right to express such opinion in public domain, including via media and press.

The boundary between independence of reporting and personal opinion bias is not established by whether a journalist has personal beliefs or whether a journalist chooses to express such beliefs. That boundary is not established by a journalist attending as a participant any event, or if she or he is tweeting about it or reporting on the events which can be coincident or contradictory with a journalist's personal opinion. Neither is the Daniel Kahneman's theory of how our brains work relevant to the ex ante analysis (it can be relevant to the ex post analysis, however) of what constitutes a risk factor in generating biased reporting.

That boundary is established by the nature and quality of reporting itself. If reporting is biased, then the boundary of professionalism and independence is crossed. If reporting is straight down the line, factual and un-emotive, then no boundary is broken.

The core problem, therefore, is not in the bais itself, but in the source of potential bias in Irish journalism. In my view, that source is media users' expectation that journalists can or should be opinion formers, cultivated by

  • preferences for complexity avoidance amongst the readers that vests journalists with a professional license to 'explain the world' to readers / viewers, plus
  • preferences of the journalists to shape their profession away from being a facilitator of newsflow (lowly task of reporting, reserved for the often despised wire services), toward being creators of content. 
The former implies immense amount of trust placed at the hands of the journalists by the public, while the latter implies a natural incentive to 'professionalise' opinion formation as a part of journalism.

Journalists should not - in either a professional capacity or in personal - be vested with a license to be intellectuals. No one should. Neither an academic, nor a legal professional, nor any other professional or indeed anyone. Formation and influencing of public opinion is the domain for all, not a domain for a single or a handful of professions. The game is up for Ireland's intellectual elite when one considers the representation of opinion in Irish press. Indeed, the game is up for virtually all press on the same basis.

In Ireland, the readers expect not reporting of news, but production of opinion from our press. And too often our press obliges to reflect these preferences. Thus, pages of newspapers and our airways are filled with journalists interviewing journalists and reporting on what other journalists expressed in their opinion articles. We have cross-media population of opinion writers whose only claim to knowledge they attempt to communicate and expand is that they acquire or collate opinions of others during their performance of their professional duties.

Take a look at economics - the field I am familiar with - as an example. How many economics commentators in this country have requisite training to understand an item of modern economic research? Outside those who only produce occasional opinion articles - a tiny handful. How many economics commentators in this country today run their own databases, maintain rigorous updating of their analysis, collate real data and are able to analyse that data using modern economics tools? Amongst regular commentators on economics - a tiny handful.

Thus, regular 'economics' opinion writers (as opposed to occasional ones) are confined to the realm of journalists covering economics pontificating on economics matters. They do so not from the basis of opening their own databases and tracking their own trends analysis, research (either published or maintenance, peer-reviewed or simply original), but from the absis of what they glimpse from either interviews or conversations with those who do, or worse - on the basis of un-cited sources. In volume terms, reprinting 'influential' but often commercially biased research, reporting on largely irrelevant or unscrutinised statistics, and creating fake 'balance' by seeking out diametrically opposed positions for commentary in situations where sometimes such positions simply make no sense are all routine occurrences in Irish economic policies debates.

One example comes to mind. During the debates on the issue of Property Tax, majority of airways were filled with superficial positioning of 'Pro-tax' arguments juxtaposed by 'Anti-tax'. At the same time, the real debate amongst professional economists was positioned more along the lines of 'What sort of tax?' and 'What the tax revenue should be used for?' Media-sustained tax and spending policies debate so far has completely failed to even begin addressing the core issue of what is being funded by our fiscal policies, stressing instead levels of funding and individual aspects of funding allocations.

The result of this 'professionalization' of journalists' own opinions is a gradual disappearance of actual reporting of facts and migration of journalism into opinion making, aka promotion of own views. In modern press and media, a reporter or an investigative reporter are the jobs only useful in so far as being instrumental to launch one's career to become an opinion writer.

(There are exceptions, of course, but these are found primarily in narrow specialization, requiring expertise-building, by a handful of journalists covering specialist fields. For example - legal affairs or finance or science and arts coverage.)

In general, however, once the two roles are combined, especially for senior journalists, there is always a risk of the boundary between personal belief and independent reporting being blurred - even if only sub-consciously. It is, thus, the end role of the editors, as guardians of the conduit by which journalists' work reaches the public, to ensure that the values of independent and objective reporting are reflected in a publication, as well as to make certain that opinion, when published, is clearly identified.

The concerns of impartiality and objectivity in reporting, of creating a clear-cut separation between analysis, reporting and opinion, are, thus, concerns of editorial approach. And these concerns are not served well by professionalization of the journalistic license into becoming a license to form opinion.

Kahneman's two-systems brain theory does not imply distortionary damage at the level of journalists seeking a balance between their own beliefs and the objectivity of their reporting. Instead, it implies that the danger - in the form of distorting the process of discovery of truth by the readers - arises from the ethos of publications and media channels editorial positioning. Thus, it is not relevant to the thesis of media biases formation as to how many journalists attend a particular social protest event any more than the knowledge of how many of the journalists have read a particular book or subscribe to a particular magazine. Neither is it relevant as to how many of them use social networks to promote that which they believe in. The only thing that matters is whether these beliefs are actually transmitted to the pages of their publications when they act in an official capacity without a clear warning that these are opinions of the authors. The primary guardian against such dangers is not each individual journalist, but the editor of the publication responsible for objectivity of the publication content.

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