Beware of Big Brother and bias
Mediaculture: Reflections on the effect of media and culture on our faithby Gordon Houser
Conversation around issues in our culture becomes more difficult when certain parties act like Orwell’s Big Brother or when media outlets let bias affect their reporting.
Big Brother: William Cronon, a historian who teaches at the University of Wisconsin, published an opinion piece in The New York Times suggesting that Wisconsin’s Republican governor has turned his back on the state’s long tradition of “neighborliness, decency and mutual respect.”
The G.O.P.’s response, writes Paul Krugman in his March 27 Times column, was to demand copies of all e-mails sent to or from Cronon’s university mail account containing any of a wide range of terms, including the word “Republican” and the names of a number of Republican politicians.
Krugman compares this to the ongoing smear campaign against climate science and climate scientists.
Back in 2009, he writes, “climate skeptics got hold of more than 1,000 e-mails between researchers at the Climate Research Unit at Britain’s University of East Anglia. Nothing in the correspondence suggested any kind of scientific impropriety.”
The skeptics called it “Climategate,” Krugman writes, but “much of the smear has focused on just one e-mail, in which a researcher talks about using a ‘trick’ to ‘hide the decline’ in a particular series. In context, it’s clear that he’s talking about making an effective graphical presentation, not about suppressing evidence.”
In such smear campaigns, the substance of a person’s argument is ignored in order to discredit him or her. And while asking for e-mail records is not illegal, it can have a chilling effect on academic researchers, which is likely the point.
What’s at stake, Krugman writes, “is whether we’re going to have an open national discourse in which scholars feel free to go wherever the evidence takes them and to contribute to public understanding.” Unfortunately, some powerful groups don’t want an open conversation.
Bias: While all reporting includes an element of bias, when it is widespread and reflects the agenda of a certain party, it needs to be called to task.
In the March/April issue of Columbia Journalism Review, Karen Rothmyer does just that in regard to Africa.
She mentions good news out of Africa: “Poverty rates throughout the continent have been falling steadily and much faster than previously thought. ... The death rate of children under 5 years of age is dropping. ... Africa is among the world’s most rapidly growing economic regions.”
However, she writes, “U.S. journalism continues to portray a continent of unending horrors,” and she provides some examples.
What’s behind this bias? Rothmyer believes that the main reason for such negative stereotypes may well be “the influence of Western-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international aid groups like United Nations agencies.” She says she understands that these organizations “tend to focus not on what has been accomplished but on convincing people how much remains to be done.” And they need funds in order to operate.
Africans concede that terrible conflict and human suffering continue on the continent. “But what’s lacking, say media observers ... is context and breadth of coverage so that outsiders can see the continent as a whole,” Rothmyer writes.
Any good communication requires openness and context. We need to apply that to our own consumption of news.
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