Thursday, May 12, 2016

Wither the media

Whither - or wither - the news media? A tale of three anecdotes.

Earlier this week, Gizmodo published a story that said the people hired by Facebook to manage and curate “trending topics” often ignored what was really happening – mostly of a conservative bent – to promote stories they were more comfortable with – mostly of a liberal bent. CBS and The Washington Post covered the story, as did most of the mainstream and online media. It’s an important story because of the influence and impact Facebook has in promoting news.

According to Gizmodo, former employees said stories like the IRS / Lois Lerner scandal were played down, and stories like Black Lives Matter were played up. The former employees said that these Facebook editors, mostly journalists, often ignored Facebook’s own algorithms.

Facebook’s response was that there was no evidence this was true, and that Facebook’s system could not be played this way. It takes a few repeated readings to understand the responses, but what Facebook doesn’t deny is that it actually happened.

Second, we turn to Huff Post Green. A reporter interviewed the director of research for U.S. Right to Know, largely funded by the Organic Consumers Association. The director is a former Reuter’s reporter, Carey Gillam. They chat about all the things she learned about the agricultural industry, the 17 years she covered agriculture for Reuters, how companies would complain to her boss, and the work she’s doing for U.S. Right to Know.

Not once does the reporter ask her if she sees any conflict of interest in covering an industry like she did for 17 years and then going to work for U.S. Right to Know (had she gone to work for one of the big agricultural companies, people would have been outraged). The Huffington Post reporter had done only limited homework about Gillam’s years with Reuters. There’s no mention of how she managed to scoop story and after story that came from the activist community (activists knew a friendly voice when they found one); how she reported a pseudoscientific study as straight science, until she was called out by the Knight Center for the Study of Journalism at MIT; and how six weeks later did exactly the same thing with a pig study.

And third, there’s my own hometown newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It’s a liberal newspaper, with a liberal editorial stance, and that’s been generally consistent for the 37 years we’ve lived here. In the past few years, however, editorial comments and slants have been noticeably finding their way into the news stories and even how the news sections are edited (the sports page appears to be generally immune to this, most of the time).

Tony Messenger, formerly the head of the editorial page staff, is now a regular columnist. He reflects the newspaper’s editorial stance. From occasional comments in his column, he must receive a fair amount of flak from readers. But a column is opinion, and he writes his opinions.

In a recent article, he noted what different readers had said about his columns on the municipal courts in St. Louis County, a subject that received extraordinary coverage after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The subject should have received this coverage – the way the municipalities, courts, judges, and attorneys managed their business – and particularly how they wrote traffic tickets, often to the disadvantage of the poor (and black) citizens – should have been brought to light. The problem has existed for years, and should have been reported long before the Michael Brown shooting.

What Messenger did in his column, though, was something I didn’t expect. He essentially dismissed the critics of his column and the paper by saying they followed and listened to only “their own narrative.”

I had to read that a few times to make sure I was actually reading what he said. People who disagreed with his and the paper’s stories were following only their own narrative? What?

Does he think the media don’t follow their own narratives? Does he think the Post-Dispatch editorial page doesn’t follow its own narrative? Has he never googled “media narrative” to find 134,000,000 search results?

Does he not realize that he writes with his own rather blatant narrative?

Facebook is the single greatest transmitter of clicks to the major news media; that’s why it’s “trending stories” is so important.

Reporters can be just as influenced by lobbying organizations claiming to watch out for the public interest as they can be by big business, big labor, and big government.

And columnists write within the framework of their own narrative and the larger narrative of the news medium they work for. And they shouldn’t dismiss criticism as “readers’ narratives.”

These stories are examples of a larger media problem – why there is an issue of trust and mistrust with the media. We can no longer trust what we read in online or traditional media as news when so much evidence points toward narratives and agendas.

Top and middle photographs by Kai Stochiwiak, and bottom photograph by Ron Mzr, all via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

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