Panel: Should the news be fair and balanced?
Five University alumni who work in the media tried to answer the question, “Is Anyone Really Interested in Having the News Be Fair and Balanced?”, in a panel discussion hosted on Thursday afternoon.
Andrew Napolitano ’72, Kathy Kiely ’77, Christopher Chambers ’82, Louis Jacobson ’92 and David Tukey ’02 shared their views on the interactions between the media, the public, advances in technology and politics. The discussion was moderated by Barton Gellman ’82, a visiting lecturer at the Wilson School and a contributing editor-at-large at Time magazine.
Napolitano, a senior judicial analyst at Fox News Channel, which uses the motto “Fair and Balanced,” said that there’s a reason that some people look to like-minded media outlets.
“It’s gratifying to hear current events articulated out of the mouth of someone who shares your values,” he explained. However, Napolitano also qualified this observation by saying that it is still unclear to what extent these types of news outlets — ones in which journalists make their personal views known — omit information that the viewer does not want to hear.
Chambers, a professor of media studies and communications at Georgetown, shared Napolitano’s perspective that consumers of the media look to have their opinions confirmed. He addressed the question of the “challenged audience” or the “reinforced audience” by suggesting that people have an inherent desire to hear their views placed in a positive light. Much like support for a sports team, he said, people are willing to overlook flaws in their candidates in order to “win the championship.”
“We might pay lip service to [fair and balanced media], but we want to be reinforced ... We want to see our views not necessarily validated, but we want to belong,” he said.
Tukey, a Fox News analyst alongside Napolitano and a neuroscientist, said that the desire for a biased news outlet comes from news being a form of pleasure that results in dopamine release. Every new post from a blog or Twitter post that is agreeable with a person’s beliefs results in their experiencing pleasure.
“The way technology has affected media in recent years — the shortening of the news cycle, more outlets you can go to to find an outlet that agrees with you — it really allows people to use the media they consume as a form of pleasure more than ever before,” Tukey said.
Technology has also allowed news channels to figure out the topics in which their audience is most interested, since they now get viewership numbers that can be updated every five minutes.
“We can not only tell what guest is spiking ratings, we can tell what sentence is spiking ratings,” Napolitano said.
Some organizations attempt to provide nonpartisan information, uninfluenced by the partisanship of news outlets. The Sunlight Foundation, where Kiely works as managing editor, is a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote government transparency through the use of the Internet, while PolitiFact, where Jacobson works as senior writer, fact-checks social media, rating Facebook posts, tweets and even chain emails based on their validity.
“When the government puts out information, when the government is transparent, it’s one thing to put the information out,” Kiely said. “It’s another thing to put the information out in a format the public can use, interpret, sort, understand and make useful.”
Kiely is also a member of The Daily Princetonian’s Board of Trustees.
However, the panelists said that the Sunlight Foundation and PolitiFact are still influenced by partisanship, as the organizations often upset the strong left as well as the strong right.
“We see really both sides using us when convenient and ignoring us or trying to challenge us when it’s not,” Jacobson said.
While the increase in technology may be empowering, Kiely said that it may also give people “blinders,” which is why it is important to think critically about these news sources.
“I think that everybody should take journalism 101 because everyone’s a publisher now so why don’t you learn to be a reporter?” Kiely said. “Understand where your facts are coming from — whether or not you’re being spun, ask yourself ‘Why is that person giving me that information?’ ”
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