Friday, January 27, 2012

Keystone XL and General Flaws in Media

I recall that a few years ago I received e-mails from Media Matters for America on a very regular basis. Since that time they seem to have substantially reduced their commitment to direct mailing, which is for the best since in that same time the quality of their content has plunged catastrophically. I used to be able to count on them for advocacy that, while it did come overwhelmingly from one side of the political divide, called attention to genuine factual errors in politically skewed news reporting.

Now, when I receive a communication or call to action, or listen to the Media Matters Minute, or browse their featured content the message that the group is trying to convey is little more than, “Can you believe this familiar asshole said this latest thing that is obviously disagreeable to us?”

Media Still Matters?

That’s why it came as such a welcome surprise when a mass e-mail from Media Matters’ Matt Butler presented us readers with actual research and factually-oriented objections to widespread news reporting. The partisan bias is as evident as it ever has been, but I don’t rush to demonize bias in and of itself. Obviously, I have a dense collection of my own biases, but I like to think that they are subject to new information and that I respect data far over and above my ideological commitments. We interpret data differently based on our biases, as I’m sure I will do with the subject at hand, but I think it’s perfectly reasonable for me to expect that responsible politicians, media personalities, and especially media watch dog groups ought to make every one of their arguments on the basis of something substantive, as opposed to just ranting and making shit up.

The staff at Media Matters is probably by and large opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline. I am, too. But the organization’s e-mail served to share a legitimate and potentially significant study of media coverage of the issue. They’re pushing a certain interpretation of the data, but even if their views and mine didn’t align on this, it would still do my heart good to see data in the first place.

Necessary Balance vs. Harmful Balance

The first data point cited by Media Matters is already a shocking indication of inaccuracy and inconsistency in news reporting. According to their research, sources quoted and interviewed on the topic of Keystone XL were differently split among support, opposition, and neutrality depending on for what type of news media they were being interviewed. Print media relied on pro-pipeline sources 45 percent of the time, and opponents 31 percent of the time. Cable networks, on the other hand, gave 59 percent of their attention to proponents and only 16 to opponents. Broadcast television was even more wildly unbalanced, making 79 percent of their sources for the pipeline and only 7 percent against.

Though Media Matters doesn’t say it explicitly, the liberal track record they have developed suggests to me that they take these figures to mean that popular sources of news are probably distorting the issue to indicate that there is far more support for the pipelines than there is. That’s actually not my concern. It could just as well be the case that public opinion really is overwhelmingly in favor of the pipeline, and that print media is for some reason giving more time to a the minority view than that view’s influence warrants. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter in towards which side the coverage tilts. What bothers me is the outrageous inconsistency. Regardless of which side the media or particular parts of it is trying to take, the inescapable conclusion here is that either print or television journalists are effectively lying.

Media Matters indicates its bias on the issue through its breakdown of the distribution of views on major cable networks and major newspapers. Fox News and the Wall Street Journal naturally extended more air time and print space to proponents of the pipeline. By way of contrast, Media Matters identifies the New York Times and MSNBC as being the most balanced in their respective media categories. While this is technically true given the numbers, the word “balanced” is something of a loaded term, and anyone who makes a career or a pastime of criticizing Fox News should recognize its manipulative use.

The perceived virtue of “balance” is among the most harmful notions in the news media today. A balance of two issues only contributes positively to the public understanding of it if there is a legitimate divide in public opinion on that issue. MSNBC and the New York Times are right to provide roughly equal time to opponents and proponents of Keystone XL only if expert opinion in fact divides in that way. Otherwise, they are manufacturing balance to obfuscate the actual state of discourse and put their presumptive conclusion on equal footing even if it doesn’t belong there.

No outlet ought to do this, no matter how much I personally agree with their point of view. Of course, I don’t know whether the Times and MSNBC are the best or the worst representatives of the state of expert opinion. It could be that the vast majority of economists agree that it will create substantially many permanent jobs, and that such economists vastly exceed the percentage ecologists who believe that it will devastate the environment. Or it could be that experts are evenly split on each separate issue. I don’t know, because unfortunately there’s nobody in the country whose job it is to tell me these things.

Rhetoric of Emphasis

On the other hand, I give Media Matters much credit for taking the responsibility upon itself to tell me exactly what other organizations have been telling me. As I indicated above, it could be that media imbalance between opposition and advocacy is justified because there’s an actual imbalance in expert opinion on the pros and cons of the issue. That justification doesn’t really apply, though, if a news organization privileges one type of expertise over another when both are relevant to understanding the issue and resolving the conflict between alternatives. According to Media Matters’ data, that is just what most of the media has done in this case.

Its second data point tracked how often each of four topics was mentioned in broadcast, cable, and print media. These topics were job creation, environmental concerns, US energy security, and criticism of the state department review. The former two appear to both be foundational to this issue, yet Media Matters found that in broadcast media job creation was mentioned in 67 percent of all coverage, but environmental concerns were raised in only 17 percent. On cable the discrepancy was 77 to 34 percent. Only in print was there a rough balance of the two issues, with job creation being mentioned in 68 percent of articles and environmental concerns in 65 percent.

This is an instance where balance is decidedly a virtue. It may be that the raw number of economic advocates of Keystone XL is enormously greater than the raw number of environmental opponents, but the number of active voices on each topic says nothing about the legitimacy of their claims. When the issue is a pipeline designed to carry tar sands oil across much of the Midwestern United States, the environment is a self-evidently legitimate subject to cite in either advocacy or opposition.

Even if there were only a dozen ecologists who had formed opinion on the potential impact of building the pipeline and ten of them thought there would be no environmental damage whatsoever, that is still something that needs to be pointed out to readers and television viewers. The only excuse for discounting one aspect of such a dialogue is if consensus has already been formed and the result is common knowledge among the public. This is clearly not the case with Keystone XL. In fact, it seems that many people still do not understand just how poisonous to the environment tar sands oil is.

Specific Failings

Beyond these two general points, Media Matters addresses a series of specific details regarding the pipeline, TransCanada, and the studies surrounding them that the media seemingly failed to address adequately. These are all well worth understanding both for the sake of drawing conclusions regarding the pipeline itself and assessing the value of the media’s role in informing the public on it. However, the above general data points are particularly significant to criticism of overall media practices as they are likely to apply to entirely different stories.

Both these practices and the particular details that Media Matters addresses point to the rhetorical power of omission. Of course, with respect to the criticisms of specific omitted details, Media Matters is possibly playing the opposite game and misidentifying the absence of their preferred bias as the presence of a contrary bias. On the other hand, no such counter arguments truly apply to observation of vast discrepancies in the general type of information that is covered by different media organizations. That situation gives the awful impression that someone of those who are charged with informing the public, and perhaps all of them, are routinely lying to us.

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