Monday, March 8, 2010

Another Media FAIL on Proposition A

I understand the need for journalists to strive for objectivity. The way in which information is presented is important, and if we didn't have journalists that at least attempted to be unbiased in their reporting (whether or not they are ultimately successful), it would be extremely hard for news consumers get the information they need to form educated opinions. But modern day journalists often seem to operate using a warped notion that defines "objectivity" as simply taking down quotes from two opposing sides of an issue, even when clear facts are available. In my opinion, not only does this warped notion result in less informed readers, it actually defeats the original purpose of the quest for objectivity.

Take this recent story by the Beacon on Proposition A, the 1/2 of 1 percent sales tax increase needed to preserve and expand public transportation in St. Louis. The article begins with a focus on the pro-transit campaign, and then shifts to an interview with John Burns, whom I've profiled here, about opposition to the campaign. The author writes:
A major sore point for Citizens for Better Transit [the tea party group opposed to Prop A] is Washington University, which it alleges gets thousands of passes for its students and staff at a greatly reduced price.
She then included the response from Chancellor Mark Wrighton, who pointed out that the university is simply using a program at Metro that offers a reduced rate to any institution that buys in bulk. So the idea that Washington University is getting a "special deal" is ridiculous. This is nothing more than the fact that groups that buy in bulk get stuff at cheaper rates.

Yet, the author then goes back to quote another Metro critic, Tom Sullivan, as follows:
They don't have the deficit they're claiming and they're spending money on things they shouldn't be like subsidies for Washington University.

Here's what makes no sense. Why present this as a "person 1 said A, person 2 said not A" type of issue? There is a simple fact to the matter. All the reporter (Kathie Sutin) would need to do to answer the question is simply to ask Metro if this deal is available to other businesses.

Given that there is a fact to the matter, what possible value is there in simply presenting quotes from both sides? Beacon readers would be more informed on the issue if reality was plainly stated. By presenting the issue as something questionable, the Beacon is actually presenting a story that is not objective, because it is presenting information as questionable that is in fact true, and does so to the advantage of an anti-transit campaign that is working hard to misinform voters.

It's time to do away with the notion of "objectivity" that thinks that the way to be unbiased is to simply present two sides of the issues, even when there are clear, verifiable facts available (it's also worth noting that the way the media chooses the two "sides" is itself biased; the far right's opinion will always be included, but people to the left of the Democratic Party will generally be completely excluded from conversation). The anti-transit group's talking point that Wash U is getting a special deal is simply false, and the media needs to start working harder to inform their readers of basic facts like this.


  1. This is a serious issue, of course, and your complaints are valid. However, I couldn't help but think of this:

  2. Have you shared this blog post with the author of the Beacon story,
    Susan Hegger?,com_contact/Itemid,3/contact_id,6/lang,en/task,view/

    I'm disappointed in how the Beacon only accepts comments on certain stories, and more often than not disables them on controversial topics.

  3. Ben, thanks for the suggestion. I did share the general concerns about this with Hegger, although she's not actually the author (she's some kind of intermediary). But I think I will pass this post along as well.

  4. Thanks for passing this along. The Beacon does accept comments on all its stories, and the lack of a comment bug on this story is simply human error -- mine. The problem should be fixed now. We are pursuing an answer to the other question raised. I will update the story when we have a more complete answer. From Susan Hegger, St. Louis Beacon.

  5. That's great Susan. Thanks so much for taking the time to respond and address the concern.

  6. Susan, thank you for the response, and I apologize for the tone of my original comment. I wrote from my (unfounded) impression the Beacon was making editorial decisions about which articles would allow reader comments. I am happy to read this was just a tech snafu, and the Beacon aims to encourage reader feedback on all its stories.

  7. I don't know that disabling comments is such a bad thing, absent some form of moderation (either by a newspaper representative or some sort of community moderation). Have you ever looked at the Post-Dispatch comments? They're embarrassing and alarming. There are other ways to keep media accountable that have less tendency turn into Lord of the Flies or letting the patients run the asylum.