Monday, May 24, 2010

This column originally appeared in the Daily Local News.

Mirror or lamp?

Well, hurry up, decide. Which should news be: a mirror or a lamp?

Often, I've heard comments that so-and-so just watches or reads such-and-such news because it confirms their political bias. I seem to detect some disapproval in these remarks. You know, just a smidge.

But it's a little unclear who's at fault. The news consumer, usually, is being criticized for their lack of discrimination; but the news provider is tainted, too, for not educating the consumer properly.

One of the background problems in evaluating whether journalism is "done well" or not stems from figuring out which metaphor we're looking for. Should journalism reflect the passions and interests of the day, or should it take responsibility to guide public debate?

When we read or watch news, we're looking for information, but often we're also looking for context. In business reporting, for example, those of us without finance degrees need some translating, some explanation of why a given business or economic event is important and what consequences it might have.

In political reporting, those of us who haven't memorized the bios of every member of state or national legislatures and can't quote the bill number of every piece of legislation related to the current one need the same thing. But every decision made by the people who give us that background flirts with the space between reflecting and guiding.

The truth is not something that rises up by itself like bread dough; just reflecting, as a mirror, whatever is most noteworthy on a given day isn't enough to meet the obligations we place on our press. But any shaping or guiding, lighting the way like a lamp, can lead to perceived meddling, giving up the authority journalists are supposed to have as truth-tellers.

So it seems there are problems with either metaphor. Treating the news as a reflection is a problem not only — not even, necessarily primarily — because journalism "ought not" to be passive, but because it is not.

Journalism shapes public debate; if journalists ignore that, they fail to dig up the "truth." By consciously recognizing and responding to public needs, though, journalists run the risk of paternalism, or creating the opportunity for the kind of "confirmation bias" of which we are so critical.

For example, there is a growing movement called "public journalism," which tries to take an actively self-reflective role in the production of news with the conscious goal of spurring public deliberation and interaction in the governing process — things that newspeople are sometimes criticized for failing to do.

But who are journalists to tell the public what it needs to know, what it needs to do? Nobody. And yet, isn't that part of what it means to be a "watchdog press" — an inevitable result?

As the much-quoted masthead of the New York Observer said until recently, there is "Nothing sacred but the truth." But here the line blurs. Perhaps the truth is sacred, but like many sacred things, it wears many faces and is invariably interpreted on a thoroughly subjective basis.

In the attempt to figure out what it means for journalism to be "good" — so that we know what we need, so that we know when journalism is failing us or when we're failing it, hey, even so that we know what's worth paying for — we need to recognize that there's some gray area here.

But the complaint about confirmation bias I hear holds the news consumer responsible as much as the news producer. In order to maintain a watchdog press, we need a watchdog public. We need, as individuals, to check our values, to ask ourselves why we agree or disagree with one news source over another. And maybe to do that, we need both metaphors; maybe we need a lamp in front of a mirror.

Katrina Dix is the assistant news editor at the Daily Local News, as well as a graduate student in an applied ethics program. She welcomes your thoughts on the media (because she knows you have them!). To contact her, send an e-mail to

No comments: