Not Written By Robots, Not Read By Robots

“I admire their (CNN) commitment to cover all sides of the story just in case one of them happens to be accurate.”
                   Barack Obama, White House Correspondents Dinner, April 27, 2013

This zinger is a hoot. After I laughed, it made me think.

Accuracy. One of the holy of holies. Let’s add two more: Balance. Fairness.

It’s in the bones of most journalists to strive for those objectives. Yet that their absence is a commonplace criticism of journalism these days.

How is it possible that journalists striving to achieve accurate, fair and balanced reporting manage to create journalism that is said to be neither accurate, fair nor balanced?

Let’s dismiss out of hand reporters who don’t seek these journalistic virtues. They tarnish us all, but they are a dead end, in so many ways.

Let’s start the investigation with those factual errors in reporting that can bite even good reporters in the ass.These errors multiply in this fast and furious news environment, and certainly do serious damage to our credibility.

This damage has far-reaching consequences, since it fuels complaints about accuracy and fairness, even when those complaints are unfounded. It gives credence to all the complainers since if journalists clearly got these facts wrong, they might not have other things right either.

Back in the day when Walter Cronkite gave us the news, there weren’t many accusations of this sort. In fact, he was seen to be the national arbiter of what was true. Even when, in hindsight, we can see that he was not as accurate, fair or balanced as viewers believed.

In those halcyon days, journalistic lack of accuracy or fairness or balance wasn’t the all-too-common excuse – especially of politicians – for information made public that made them uncomfortable.

In fact, it wasn’t until the media began its relentless pursuit of the elusive truth about our involvement in Viet Nam that politicians began to resort to what has now become a well-practiced evasion. A modern day equivalent of shooting the messenger: That the story is inaccurate, that the reporter is biased.

As reporters reported what they saw, the people whose interests were not served by that reporting realized that the best defense is a good offense and rather than attempt to counter those reports, they just ran an end run around them and claimed the reports weren’t true.

And it widened beyond pols. As reporters reported stories that didn’t sit right with folks of one political/religious persuasion or another, those who felt that their “side” was not respected in the story — for example, that the reporting was insufficiently patriotic — could also take refuge in the charge that the reporting was unbalanced or unfair or inaccurate.

Now, everybody’s doing it.

And while I acknowledge that a completely unbiased reporter might be hard to come by, it is true that reporters are generally trained to aim for a lack of bias. Do they always achieve it? Certainly not. But I’m thinking that they achieve it a lot more often than they are given credit for these days. The truth is, there are lots of stories that are a routine part of the job for most reporters and they just don’t have a dog in the fight. That’s good.

How about we shift our focus away from the accuracy of the announcer/writer, and focus a minute on the reader/watcher?

Have we neglected to investigate the accuracy of the reader/watcher’s perception? In other words: Does the complainer have a dog in the fight? If s/he does, can they be trusted to be unbiased? So, is the president the best judge of the accuracy of a story?

Perception is a quagmire. Just look at most trial proceedings. Some of those witnesses may be lying, of course, but some really believe in what they’re saying. Many of the people imprisoned for a crime they did not commit are found guilty on the basis of the perception of the eyewitness/es. Then DNA testing finds them not guilty.

We trust ourselves. We know (we think) what we saw/heard.

In other words, we, the perceivers, judge some story as accurate or inaccurate, but that judgment is suspect. We are trapped inside the world that we know.

That’s as much true for me, a journalist, as for the layman or woman. If I — a diehard liberal — sit down to watch a debate between two candidates, it’s pretty obvious to me that my opinion of the outcome is biased. As would the opinion of my fellow watcher on the other side of the political fence.

If I were to write something about that debate, I would have to decide: Am I writing this as a journalist or as a partisan? In fact, that decision is made by a reporter working with an editor well before I watch the debate. Part of my preparation for the debate would be research into each side’s hopes for the debate and a whole lot more. When I watch it, I watch it differently.

The foundation of modern journalism is NOT that journalists don’t have an opinion, but it is that they don’t indulge in that opinion when they are reporting on a story. This is the attempt, not always successful, to be unbiased. (As an aside, I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had in the past few years watching debates. Away from my responsibilities in the newsroom I can root for whomever I wish!)

And even though I’m trained to find the neutral ground, it’s fair to question if I could accurately cover a real hot-button issue for me, like an anti-abortion demonstration.

The truth of the coverage depends a lot on where you stand. The closer to your passions an event or issue is, the more likely you are to see neutral coverage as unfair to your side.

Let’s get local.

If there’s a school board that’s handling a very tight budget and facing cuts, the open forum comments of the public will be viewed differently if you’re a teacher in the school district who might lose his job, or if you’re a parent of a third grader facing a long commute if a school is closed, or if you’re on a fixed income and you’re afraid that school taxes could be one of the things that might force you out of the home that you’ve lived in for 40 years.

In this case, the reporter following the story is not likely to be involved in the story. S/he is likely to be too young to have kids in the school district, and too poor to own a home. She does her due diligence, sums up the debate as best she can in whatever space is allocated to this story.

The next day (or that evening if the story is posted to the web) there’s a strong backlash. Many of those folks are angry, and their response leaves the hard-working reporter mystified.

Many people comment that the story is inaccurate.

Of course it could be, or it could just be that the readers/watchers have their own passionately held viewpoints and are looking to read about the meeting that they attended. The meeting where the “other” side said stupid things, and where “their” side said smart things.

I suggest that some of the less-than-flattering opinions that many folks have about journalists/journalism is fed by these perceptions. With the growth of the “reporting” universe, it’s possible to view the world solely from your own vantage point. Dearly held perceptions are now so ingrained in the culture that civil discourse has almost disappeared, replaced by talking-head inanities, infotainment on the evening news and the screaming vitriol of genuinely partisan faux-journalists.

It’s not just the financial woes of journalism institutions that endanger the craft, it’s this seeping perception that unless you report my world my way, you’re neither accurate, fair nor balanced. When, really, it’s the essential job of journalists to report the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be.