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I hate the adage that “Opinions are like a**holes; everybody has them.” It’s correct, in that opinions are simply judgements that don’t necessary have to be supported by fact or logic. But good opinions are different; not everyone has those. I don’t mean “good” in the sense that they are good because they correspond to my worldview. I mean good in the sense that they are formed through some process of deep and critical thought and that they are supported by something other than a gut-level notion.

How do we know what we know? We all want truthful information, but deciding what is truthful is no simple task. More importantly, information is rarely completely truthful or completely untruthful. In other words, things are rarely black or white; they’re almost always gray.

I’ve read quite a bit about the concept of epistemology, which is the part of philosophy that deals with the questions of what is knowledge and where knowledge comes from. Without getting deep into philosophical babble, I want to share some thoughts on how one type of knowledge — scientific knowledge — is misinterpreted.

Recently, KOMU, the local NBC-affiliate owned by the School of Journalism, posted on its Facebook feed a link to a story about a new study that shows a relationship between being a child of a deployed soldier and being more prone to violent and anti-social outcomes. They included a comment that asked readers, “Does this study exemplify your personal experience with a deployed soldier’s child? Or, is this completely stereotypical and an affront on military families?” To suggest that this study is possibly “stereotypical and an affront to military families” suggests that a reader simply sharing his or her own anecdotal experience suffices as sufficient evidence that the study is wrong.

This is the kind of thing that pundits do — present something in the news and then try to stir up the pot by getting people to argue about the story. Asking people about their experiences with military children localizes and perhaps adds some context to the story. But the latter part, asking if the study is “stereotypical and an affront,” forgets that this study was conducted under some presumed scientific rigor.

This is why the public is distrustful of science. Because the implication from pundits (and I guess now, one local TV station) is that scientists might have some bias because the findings are what we don’t want to hear.

Don’t get me wrong. Scientists do have biases that unfortunately shape their studies. And even scientists who go to great lengths to control the influence of that bias have other sources of error creep into research. Lots of research is quite error-prone. Journalists should question scientific findings. But it must be done in the context of understanding the scientific process.

But, to frame the story as a dichotomy, that the study is valid because readers’ experiences add credence to it OR that experiences do not exemplify findings AND THEREFORE the study must be simply a stereotypical representation is wrong. And it’s certainly not good journalism.

Science has its problems. And it should be questioned. But it needs to be questioned on the basis of its methods and not on anecdotal gut feelings.

I’ll end this rant with a nod to the Daily Show for a recent piece on this very issue:

 

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Weathering Fights – Science: What’s It Up To?
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

This past weekend I finished reading “Mediating the message,” a classic mass communication theory book that explores factors of the media environment that influence content. It was nice, then, when I saw on Sunday the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart on FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace, talking about his take on the source of the bias in news media.

While Wallace admitted to there being a conservative slant on FOX, he said it exists as a “counterbalance” to the mainstream media outlets, which he says display a liberal bias. Stewart disagreed, saying that perhaps MSNBC has become an outlet with a clear liberal slant (though only after the success of FOX’s business model), but most other news organizations have no clear political bias.

It seems what Wallace is trying to suggest that the liberal bias comes mostly from individuals acting as activists. Stewart, on the other hand, suggests aspects of organizational structure and routines that influence the content. “The bias of the mainstream media is toward sensationalism, conflict, and laziness,” he says.

In “Mediating the message,” authors Pamela Shoemaker and Stephen Reese suggest a theory of influence on media content, focusing somewhat holistically on both micro- and macro-level factors. These factors exist, according to the theory, on five levels: individual, routines, organizational, extramedia, and ideological. Stewart’s last comment on the biases toward “sensationalism, conflict, and laziness” speaks to qualities that exist within several of these levels, and in most cases, they are very deeply embedded in the media outlets both hosts are discussing.

Let’s take sensationalism and conflict, for example. Most news organization — FOX News included — are vying for audiences that like entertainment programming and the easy-to-follow stories that go along with it. Or at least that’s what we think we know about them. So, we tend to gravitate toward coverage of stories that can be told in an narrative that has characters, conflict, etc. Take the Weiner coverage for example. Congressman does something devious, gets caught, lies, comes out with truth. That’s pretty easy to follow. There are characters. There’s a conflict. There’s a resolution. The end.

In fact, the structure is so biased to such coverage that after Anthony Weiner resigned, as Stewart mentions in his appearance on FOX, all of the 24-hour news channels went to Nancy Pelosi’s regularly scheduled press conference. They expected her to talk about the Weiner story, but when she said she wouldn’t be answering any questions about it and would instead be talking about jobs and Medicare, all the stations dropped the live feed.

I remember once in grad school in 2006 I was watching one of the cable news channels cover an insignificant story that had narrative appeal (I can’t remember the exact story). I asked myself when this all started, meaning when did journalism become so sensationalistic.  My roommate at the time (Nick Geidner, who is also a media scholar), always the comedian, decided to answer my obviously rhetorical question with a very short answer: “1994.”

What Nick meant was that 24-hour news showed its strength in the late 80’s and early 90’s with coverage of the Gulf War. After the war ended in 1991, audiences had fewer reasons to turn to the channel as much as they might have during the war. That is until 1994, and ensuring OJ Simpson mania. The realization that this new medium could cover even insignificant yet conflict- and narrative-filled stories all the time changed the nature of what news is. The Internet — and the so-called never-ending news cycle — has only exacerbated those routines. Jon Stewart on FOX News Sunday said something similar:

24-hour news networks are built for one thing, and that’s 9/11 and the type of gigantic news event that the type of apparatus that exists in this building and exists at the other 24-hour (news networks) is perfectly suited to cover.

In the absence of that, they’re not just going to say, ”There’s not that much that’s urgent or important or conflicted happening today. So we are going to gin up; we’re going to bring forth more conflict and more sensationalism because we want you to continue watching us 24 hours a day, seven days a week — even when the news doesn’t necessarily warrant that type of behavior.”

Wallace seems to think that the individual political perspectives of those who work at mainstream media organizations is liberal (maybe slightly, according to some research on the topic). What he fails to see, however, is that the other factors are far more influential on news content. It’s the heavily commercial structure of the media system, which values stories that produce more eyeballs regardless of their service to the public interest. It’s the routines of frequently using the same sources. It’s the technology that pushes us to get news out faster. It’s all of these factors and more influencing each other and, in myriad ways, content.

While Wallace is probably right that some personal political beliefs influence coverage, it’s the core parts of the media structure that more greatly affect what we see on the news. Of course, those antecedents are much more complex. And more difficult to blame so easily.