Why the Traditional Media Can’t Admit False Equivalence Is a Problem
July 20, 2012 3 Comments
Public criticism over the media’s false equivalence and VFY journalism is slowly building. Important people are denouncing it and organizations are beginning to make a concerted effort to fight it. (Yesterday Wolf Blitzer even seemed to have a rare moment of clarity.) Despite all these positive signs, there’s still a nearly insurmountable force preventing change from happening. If journalists admit false equivalence is a problem, it effectively trivializes much of their hard work.
The idea that you can describe both sides of an issue and have a reader make their own judgment is admirable. But that’s not how public opinion is formed in our current world. Public opinion is formed by taking the quantity of media coverage and it’s derivatives – water cooler conversations, late-night talk show jokes, facebook posts – and using it as a heuristic for figuring out what’s important. The majority of people decide what to think by simply absorbing the din around them. This is why the media can publish disparaging articles about death panels for two weeks and not de-legitimize it. If it’s in the news then there must be something to it.
Many journalists can’t acknowledge this because it would essentially be admitting that much of what they do is meaningless. All those phrases injected with just the right nuance? All those great interview questions that produced a perfect response? They were a waste of time if all that mattered was that the headline marginally reinforced the national consensus. A journalist would have to overcome an enormous amount of cognitive dissonance to admit that the details of an article have little effect on public opinion. It would be renouncing the journalism religion they were raised on.
The cognitive dissonance problem is exacerbated by the fact that most journalists hang out with other well-informed people who make a concerted effort to educate themselves about what’s happening in the world. The idea that knowing exactly what’s going on is not the most important thing is foreign to them. As a result many in the journalism world go on thinking that by presenting each side’s argument in the most factual way they’ll make everybody better informed. The solution to public ignorance can only be better articles with better reporting.
This won’t last forever. But like views on gay marriage, it will take some amount of generational replacement for the norm the shift. Eventually we’ll eradicate false-equivalence, but it will take longer than people think.