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article imageOp-Ed: Public 'sins,' media bias and how to gain trust in the news

By Carol Forsloff     May 10, 2011 in Lifestyle
How do you know when information is accurate and whether the person who wrote it might be your neighbor’s kid who just copied it or the local plumber with a political agenda? Ethics and numbers are issues worrying the public and reducing its trust.
Courts are already examining the definition of blogger vs. journalist, as issues continue to mount on ethical violations and errors of fact with the traditionalists arguing that ethics and the numbers make the difference in who and what to believe, especially regarding sensitive information like the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Sensitive information, such as bin Laden's killing, has issues that involve the public’s right to know, while certain details if revealed could create serious problems. The barge of garbage posing as information on the Internet can sometimes not be distinguished from those articles that are created by people who have studied and reasoned carefully about the subjects themselves. A sensational title, added to the dictum that some folks believe is the First Amendment, can make hay in the form of page views and popularity, but down the road can prove fatal for the unfortunate folk who don’t follow the rules.
Part of traditional journalism curriculum is aimed not only to enhance the writing skills of talented writers but also to infuse the profession with a set of ethics that help folks make the right decisions on what to say and what not to say about public and private persons as well as ideas. Some bloggers, in the continuing effort to promote the notion that anyone can write anything, may interfere not just with the facts themselves but the ethics that form the very foundation of journalism. Thomas Jefferson presumed good education as part of the foundation for applications of the First Amendment.
Traditional journalists may not apply ethics but they have been exposed to the information, as it is part of most University courses. Information on statistics and how to apply numbers to information is also part of training. Without these two guides of ethics and statistics it is easier to make errors that can hurt the community as a whole, when people don’t know whom and what to believe.
Let's take a high-profile example, on Professor Gates, a University faculty member. Many writers found the topic enticing, and some offered aggressive material about him, that could be considered offensive in a court where the boundaries of defamation and slander are set. Gates is not a public figure, so articles about him at the time had to make that distinction, but some did not. As some may remember, Professor Gates, having misplaced his key, was seen breaking into his own home. He claimed the white officer who questioned him about it did so because Gates is black. While some people may agree that Gates’ accusations of racism were wrong, the key to making the argument was to do so with ethics and care because of the subject itself and because Gates is a private person. There were bloggers, however, who wrote a number of articles in succession that had questionable ethics with reference to Gates private life.
The move towards short visual and sound bites can also be an issue for news accuracy when facts need to be sorted from fiction. As some media groups proceed to foster bits and bytes, without much support for numbers and ethics, the underpinnings of information can be lost. Some groups say they orient their news to the young and the busy, but this young and busy is the group that is to assume the leadership of the country and that needs more, not less, information. With research showing many Americans don’t know enough of the basics to be able to pass a citizenship test, false information, or information not based on real facts, can create serious problems for the future for everyone. Authenticity takes time to determine and so do the facts to decide. So short news might not be so sweet.
There is also the issue of stealing. Those folks who write original news often see it taken verbatim or simply rewritten in another article, without any additional facts to make the second original; and the attention is then split between two offerings. The reader, on the surface, does not know which one to choose for information, especially if the rewritten article is beautifully framed in some artistically arranged website someplace. That is why the Associated Press has underlined its interests in protecting its turf. AP says, “ Except as provided in this agreement, you may not copy, reproduce, publish, transmit, transfer, sell, rent, modify, create derivative works from, distribute, repost, perform, display, or in any way commercially exploit the Materials carried on this site, nor may you infringe upon any of the copyrights or other intellectual property rights contained in the Materials.” It also isn’t just bloggers who do that, as the New York Times has pointed out examples of traditional media as well.
An op-ed piece is insufficient for a class in ethics and numbers, but my hope is that this will be read thoughtfully by those who write, or presume to write, the news. Some folks may call it arrogant to call the problems as they are; however, there are many fine writers who learned by doing and were newspaper folks for years. They did, however, often work not in competition on staffs of newspapers but in more cooperative ways of sharing. The isolated blogger or the article writer on one of a number of sites fostering news may not have the information that the old-timers shared in their groups. One news organization is already following that model.
There are online classes and ongoing courses given without charge by training and professional organizations whereby folks can acquire the information they need to do the right job the right way. There is also the mentoring approach, so the young can line up with the seasoned in other associations for mutual benefit of knowing these basics.
Some guidance for writing the news, and some basics for readers to know in evaluating the credentials of those who write news, most especially the major news of the day, presents an overview of some of the more famous journalists, like Bob Woodward, and their views about the matter of ethics in news. There are also ways websites can avoid copyright infringement as explained here.
Without those basics, however, the individual writer can be threatened with legal challenges and the communities can suffer when the facts can make a difference for the well-being of everyone. The reader needs to ask the right questions about the backgrounds of writers who offer the news, just as they might with other representative authority in the community, like teachers, doctors and even the plumber next door and to check those references well. The writer needs ethics not to go beyond the boundaries of education, training and experience in the effort to be popular or win in the Internet search. Not following the basics may be consiered the sins of both readers and writers
If the Fourth Estate, the media, is to be valued as the strong arm of the culture of people, than it has to earn its respect. Right now the public is suspicious about it, as a Pew research poll found in 2009, that less than 1/3 of people polled believe that the facts presented by the media are accurate. Part of that comes from ethical violations and the unwillingness to learn the basics of the numbers upon which objectivity is based.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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