Neutrality, Partisanship, and Restoring Faith in the Media

Because I teach, write, and care about First Amendment issues, I have come to appreciate more deeply the importance of the media’s role in fostering two of the major values underlying the First Amendment.  The media provides necessary information that allows citizens to participate more fully and rationally in our democracy (the participatory self governance theory of free speech).  More broadly, the media provides necessary information on which Americans can form opinions about any number of issues (the marketplace of ideas in the search for truth theory of free speech).  Unfortunately, at a time when the media’s role is most critical, more and more Americans have become cynical about the media.

If Americans don’t trust the media to report stories accurately and fairly, its critical role will be undermined.  The proliferation of actual “fake news” hasn’t helped this cynicism, nor has the increasing use of the concept of “fake news” to discredit stories one disfavors.  I would like this blog post to begin a conversation on how to restore faith in the media, by which I mean – how can more Americans embrace mainstream journalism as its source of credible information on topics relevant to public life and important private matters?

  1. Actively pursue and advertise the viewpoint diversity of journalists

The public has long held the view that mainstream media, including newspapers like The New York Times and TV stations like MSNBC, lean heavily to the political left (albeit generally center left).  Although journalists may aspire to cover topics fairly, we all have blind spots where we lose our best critical-thinking assets or our ability to fairly apply principles and balance interests, especially when surrounded by like-minded individuals.

A lack of viewpoint diversity in our most well respected media institutions has led many on the right to perceive the media as skewing the narrative to suit its political ends.  This belief may have, in turn, led to the development of even more skewed media institutions like Fox News and Breitbart News. Or perhaps people, in any age that promotes convenience and physical and mental comfort as paramount, naturally gravitate to news sources with which they agree, furthering polarization of the media.  Either way, one solution is for newspapers and TV stations to seek out journalists with a wider variety of political views and then advertise that fact.

Viewpoint diversity should be a critical legitimating force of any institution that represents the contribution to the search for truth as one of its main purposes.  This way, when President-elect Trump seeks to denigrate media sources or remove reporters from press conferences, the media can defend itself by demonstrating its impartiality.

  1. Aspire to “neutrality,” even though the concept is out of fashion

In a much-discussed speech at the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep reminded journalists that they need to do their jobs and speak truth to power.  This statement, however, is just as true for Democratic Presidents as Republican Presidents. President Obama’s strained relationship with separation of powers, for example, didn’t elicit much mainstream media attention, despite the power grab, because it was often for what many (rightly) considered a substantively good cause.

In my view, the media’s job is not to speak truth to power, but to speak truth – present the facts and the substantive issues surrounding a policy and let the public decide. The media should not ignore a principled problem because it prefers the outcome.  What the center left accomplishes by compromising principles, the far right often weaponizes, so the media needs to be equally critical of all political figures.  Equally critical does not mean a “false equivalence”–  although I think that term is also sometimes used cynically in political rhetoric —  but application of the same standards and principles to everyone in power.

The concept of neutrality is fairly out of fashion in most intellectual circles.  Legal realists have demonstrated that the neutral application of principles simply furthers the status quo, which itself has built in political biases and leads to particular political results.  Post modernists believe that neutrality is impossible to achieve.  Yet, a return to aspirational neutrality could and should heal a lot of cynicism about the media.  Although the focus of and context provided by an article may always involve some value-laden choices, journalists could aspire to minimizing their emphasis on values other than the journalistic values of pursuing truth, protecting sources, and ensuring accuracy of stories.  No choice is neutral in outcome, but journalists have a well regarded process that can be deemed neutral.

Most importantly, journalists should aspire not to let the results of an article, or the cause motivating an article, affect the reporting.  (Activism-based journalism is often well done, but uncritical activism leads to stories like the false rape reporting by Rolling Stone Magazine.)  Having journalists who hold a range of views would keep a media outlet honest.

  1. Promote civility

Discourse in our culture has sadly deteriorated.  On Twitter, for example, celebrities, politicians, journalists, and even professors engage with the public in glib, snide, sarcastic, self righteous ways.  Our President-elect is one of the worst exemplars of a lack of humility or civility in engaging/disagreeing with others.  This type of engagement entrenches others in their positions and yields a lot of unnecessary misunderstanding and even hate, robbing  discourse of its nuance.  There is so much to be gained by truly listening to others, and yet few seem to doing so.

Journalists are the among those who can save us, but they have to believe in the righteousness of their jobs again- which is not to convince us of things, but to help us make up our own minds.

If the media actively sought more journalists from a variety of political persuasions and aspired to a more neutral understanding of truth (not false equivalence, but facts without so much partisan/substantive values involved), perhaps there would be less distrust of the media today, when the institution is most needed and unfortunately seems most distrusted.

4 thoughts on “Neutrality, Partisanship, and Restoring Faith in the Media”

  1. Assuming that they can be acted upon, the three suggestions are promising.

    I believe an emphasis on long form journalism would also help restore trust in media.

    Even if it’s not as popular as a trending tweet or a click bate headline, in-depth reporting can offer nuance that, intentionally or not, is lost when crafting a simple narrative out of a complex subject. Anyone familiar enough with a topic to notice fact pruning for the sake of a false clarity may distrust the source and suspect that the omissions are sinister.

    It’s more time consuming and expensive to produce, but a single well-written article does a better job informing a reader than a dozen shallow articles on the same subject from only slightly different viewpoints.


    1. I agree that media outlets should devote more time and energy to long-form journalism. Unfortunately, the public doesn’t have much appetite (or time) for it, but maybe enough people could read the long form pieces that their contents would trickle into ordinary conversation anyway and shape public discourse (this is how I feel about law review articles too).

      FiveThirtyEight has a fascinating debate on whether Buzzfeed did the right thing in releasing the Trump docs about his involvement with Russia. I am torn, but ultimately think that this was probably the wrong move- more fodder to accuse the media of lacking integrity. A return to journalistic ethics would have caused Buzzfeed to sit on this while the claims were corroborated. Ultimately they should have been released, but not now- although I am glad I know about it now.


  2. Update: It seems the disclosure of the full report has actually served to allow certain facts in the report to be falsified (as opposed to when it was simply vague rumors), so perhaps better that it was published after all. Information does want to be free! Still ruminating on this one.

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