Monday, November 2, 2009

The Truth in Reporting

There's a big brouhaha going on right now about conflicts between The White House, and the Fox News Channel (FNC). The spat is because the White House feels Fox news is overly biased towards the Republican party, while Fox news points out that the segments the White House points to are Opinion shows, not News.

The problem is, though, that to many, if not most – of FNC's viewers, the opinion show hosts, are the face of 'news'. Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, treated as serious journalists, which even FNC admits, they are not. Why? Part of the problem is the branding. There is no clear distinction made between the News programming, and the opinion programming. Perhaps they should replace the station bug (the little icon in the corner) with one that says Fox Opinion, highlighting that it is not currently showing news. When it goes from Glenn Beck at 5-6 PM, to Special Report w/ Bret Baier for the following hour, there's nothing to tell anyone watching that the previous hour was just opinion, and the next hour is “News”. In a newspaper, the Editorial column is usually marked as an editorial, other columnists are similarly marked. Why can't Fox (and indeed, other news channels) do the same?

The second problem is one of a more legal bent, and directly results from Fox, although it is prevalent throughout the country in news reporting. There is no hard requirement that news reporting in the US be factually based. There is a FCC guideline that reporting be factually based, but it is not binding. This was the verdict of a court in a case involving Jane Akre. The case, is New World Communs. of Tampa, Inc. v. Akre, 866 So. 2D 1231(2003), and you can find more details at wikipedia, enough to find out more for yourself – I'm not going into it here. The upshot is, legally, news reports can be full of lies, and there is nothing that can be done about it, except for the various libel and slander laws. Don't think that Fox is to blame though, just about every other major news organisation supported Fox.

The point is, without a news media that self-identifies what is news, and what is opinion, and without the requirement that what is labelled as news be factually acurate, the US news media is a mess. There is no honesty, and no integrity. Major news organisations are owned by large conglomerates, and so they often slant their coverage to match the views of their shareholders.

What would solve this? Well, simply put a strengthening of the FCC regulation, from being a 'news distortion policy” to a “News Distortion Rule” would do it. There is a constitutional guarentee in the US, regarding the freedom of the press. However, while this might seem like a restriction of the freedom of the press, all it does is specify a minimum conduct expected of the press in their news coverage, and require that the press identify which is news coverage, and which is opinion. In short, to qualify for freedom of the press, it should be identified as news, and be factually based. If it is non-factual, or actually opinion, then it's not news, it's opinion, or a party political statement.

One of the main reasons for the freedom of the press, was to ensure that the press was able to print the news, honestly, and without worry of being silenced by those that didn't want the truth to come out. Now, the freedom of the press is being touted as a reason to NOT print the truth. Let's be very clear, news is reporting on what is happening, with an emphasis on the facts and the truth. Also, just as there are responsibilities involved in most jobs, and breaching or abusing those responsibilities will lead to punishment (doctors for instance are allowed to proscribe restricted pharmaceuticals, but if they abuse that, they face sanctions, police officers are allowed to carry weapons and detain members of the population, abuse that and THEY face consequences) Why is it that our journalists, the job of which is to spread news, the power to shape public opinion, the ability to make or break governments, able to disregard the public trust in them with no consequences.

There is a reason that many people now consider John Stewart the most trusted person in news, even though he doesn't consider himself a journalist. That's because he deals with facts, and attacks both of our two main parties, without partisanship. He doesn't take the role of news reporter seriously, and so that is perhaps why he isn't tainted by the pox that is American television journalism. The facts, and more importantly, the reporting of the facts, are funny enough to not need a spin or a lie. However, if it is a comedy, it's a tragic one, as lets be fair, the state of news reporting in the US can be nothing BUT a tragedy.

So, if you're in the US, why not contact your Senators, and your Congressmen, and ask them to please work on making news organisations accountable, TO THE TRUTH. I wonder just how many would dare to approve. If you do get a response, please, share them with me, I'd be very interested to hear what they have to say. And if you're not in the US, pass it around, corruption and misinformation could be coming to your country soon!

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