From: Paul Farhi
Subject: “The media.”
Folks, I know a lot of you don’t like the people who work in my chosen profession, the news business. I’m aware you think we’re lazy and unfair (yes, I got your emails and tweets on this topic — a few thousand of them). Of course, I disagree with you. I know a lot of fine people in the newsgathering arts and sciences. But that’s not why I’m writing.
I’m writing because I have a request: Please stop calling us “the media.”
Yes, in some sense, we are the media. But not in the blunt way you use the phrase. It’s so imprecise and generic that it has lost any meaning. It’s — how would you put this? — lazy and unfair.
As I understand your use of this term, “the media” is essentially shorthand for anything you read, saw or heard today that you disagreed with or didn’t like. At any given moment, “the media” is biased against your candidate, your issue, your very way of life.
But, you know, the media isn’t really doing that. Some article, some news report, some guy spouting off on a CNN panel or at CrankyCrackpot.com might be. But none of those things singularly are really the media.
Fact is, there really is no such thing as “the media.” It’s an invention, a tool, an all-purpose smear by people who can’t be bothered to make distinctions.
Consider: There are hundreds of broadcast and cable TV networks, a thousand or so local TV stations, a few thousand magazines and newspapers, several thousand radio stations and roughly a gazillion websites, blogs, newsletters and podcasts. There’s also Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and who knows what new digital thing.
All of these, collectively, now constitute the media.
But this vast array of news and information sources — from the New York Times to Rubber and Plastics News — helps define what’s wrong with referring to “the media.” With so many sources, one-size-fits-all reporting is impossible. Those who work in the media don’t gather in our huddle rooms each morning and light up the teleconference lines with plots to nettle and unsettle you. There is no media in the sense of a conspiracy to tilt perception.
Instead, we are tens of thousands of people making millions of individual decisions about how we perceive the world and how to characterize it. We all don’t agree on how to frame a candidate, an issue or last night’s ballgame.
So even if something on Fox News alarmed or infuriated you, Fox isn’t “the media.” Nor is NBC or MSNBC. Nor The Washington Post, the New York Post, the Denver Post or the Saturday Evening Post.
Lumping these disparate entities under the same single bland label is like describing the denizens of the ocean as “the fish.” It’s true, but effectively meaningless.
We not only don’t agree from TV network to TV network, or publication to publication, but we don’t agree within our own organizations. The editorial page of The Washington Post isn’t the news side of The Washington Post. The newspaper’s bloggers aren’t the newspaper’s op-ed writers; our op-ed columnists aren’t our reporters. None of these people alone reflects the definitive, collective judgment of The Washington Post.
It’s true that many people say they mistrust “the media” and hold us in roughly the same contempt as Congress, telemarketers and Zika. (Two markers here: Gallup reported last week that “trust and confidence” in broadcast and newspaper reporting fell to the lowest level yet recorded; a poll published Wednesday by NBC and the Wall Street Journal pegged the “unfavorable” rating for “the news media” at just above that of “Vladimir Putin.”)
But I suspect that people don’t really dislike us as much as they say they do. Much of what we produce is consumed gratefully, or at least without objection — breaking news stories, investigative journalism, “human interest” features, news from up the street and around the world. People actually like and trust the news sources that they’ve selected for themselves, which is why they keep coming back to them day after day. Survey respondents just don’t acknowledge this when asked about the shapeless abstraction known as “the news media.”
And yes, many people tell us “the media” is liberally biased. I suppose it would seem that way since conservative politicians and their supporters have been saying it for decades. Surely, some stories do display a tendency to favor the liberal position. But these are anecdotes. And like all anecdotal “evidence,” they are subject to confirmation bias — the tendency to look for things that reinforce one’s worldview, thus creating a perpetual-motion machine of self-righteousness.
The vast warehouse of academic research on media bias suggests a less satisfying conclusion: It depends. “Media bias” depends on what is studied, when and even by whom; it depends, too, on one’s definitions of “liberal” and “conservative.” In aggregate, however, liberal and conservative biases in reporting appear to cancel each other out, according to a 2012 “meta-analysis” (a study of studies) of media-bias research. Researcher David W. D’Alessio examined 99 studies of presidential-election reporting from 1948 to 2008. His conclusion? Left-leaning reporting was balanced by reporting more favorable to conservatives. A tie, in other words.
In closing, a word of advice: The next time you’re tempted to grumble about “the media” for some perceived trespass against The Truth, subject your grievance to the Five Ws we learned about back in journalism class. Who. What. When. Where. Why. Who said it or wrote it; where did they say it; and so on. (Admittedly, the “why” is the most difficult part of the equation.)
You’ll discover that your complaint is specific, not general. You’ll discover, too, that calling out “the media” makes about as much sense as calling out “people.” Some are fair, some aren’t. But they’re not all the same. It pays to know which is which.