The problem with journalism and politics is us

Between the BuzzFeed catastrophe and the Covington Catholic High School mess, I’ve been thinking a lot about journalism these past few days.

This is a topic I’m not fit to weigh on, according to some. Not so long ago columnist Jack Zaleski wrote that I shouldn’t refer to my reporter co-workers as colleagues, which is an attitude not uncommon in the journalism industry.

To people like that, journalism is a walled garden, and people with right-of-center viewpoints need not apply.

It’s that sort of attitude which has caused American trust in journalists to fall.

“Millions of Americans believe you hate them and that you will causally harm them,” Atlantic contributing editor Caitlin Flanagan wrote recently in the context of the Covington debacle. She was addressing the New York Times, which she describes as “not fair or impartial,” but the sentiment is widespread among conservative-leaning Americans.

Media bias is a real problem, and it’s more visible now than ever.

Social media is an open window into what journalists really think. I watch every day as local reporters in North Dakota tweet out left-wing opinions and left-wing opinion pieces. Which doesn’t make them bad journalists – they’re human beings, entitled to their interests and opinions – but in the aggregate you start to wonder how newsrooms with relatively homogenous world views can fairly cover complex social and political issues for audiences with diverse viewpoints.

Now some are saying journalists should pull back from social media, generally, and Twitter specifically because of what those platforms reveal about journalists. New York Times columnist Fahad Manjoo wrote that Twitter “helps bolster the most damaging stereotypes of our profession.”

I wouldn’t call what’s revealed “stereotypes.”

It’s more like inconvenient truths.

The rank-and-file of the journalism industry is not a representative sample of the lifestyles and viewpoints of our country as a whole.

Yet the bigger problem with journalism isn’t the lack of viewpoint diversity. It’s the incentives we, the audience for journalism, give to journalists.

“Why do some journalists put out inaccurate, narrative-advancing versions of events?” asks National Review political correspondent Jim Geraghty. “Because often there’s a bigger, or at least more-easily reached, audience for the inaccurate, narrative-advancing versions of events than the accurate, non-narrative-advancing one.”

“You know why they call it ‘clickbait’? Because people click on it,” he adds.

Complaints about biased, sensationalist journalists – not to mention intransigent, bomb-throwing politicians – are common. But what’s the root of the problem?

Isn’t it we the public, who eschew fair-minded and balanced journalism in favor of reporting which caters to what we want to believe?

Isn’t it we voters who reward political candidates who promise to go to Washington with a “stiff spine” and take the fight to the opposition?

Given these incentives, should we be surprised when journalists become carnival barkers and the government shuts down for want of compromise?

Free markets and democracy are very good at delivering people what the want, even when they claim they don’t want it.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator.

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