Should we embrace biased news coverage?
Is the common hope for unbiased news an unrealistic goal? Everyone has and uses biases all the time such as "do not trust what a used car salesman tells you!" We learn these "truths" from our parents, friends, teachers, coworkers, and perceived patterns we observe from our own experience. Actually, it would be difficult to function without making these quick judgments for the mundane.
Consequently, is it reasonable to expect reporters and editors to be unbiased? This understanding of human nature leads to our current system of using adversarial presentations in court proceedings to help juries judge the truth and reach verdicts. Rather than claiming to be unbiased in reporting controversial issues, the news media could help restore their credibility by adapting an "equally biased" model and let the public be the jury that decides the truth.
Gallup has taken polls over the years that show that an increasing majority of the public have either little or no trust in the news organizations presenting the news "fully, accurately and fairly." It also appears that many news organizations have moved away from any attempt at being unbiased and instead have become advocates of a specific ideology or political view. This change dovetails with our naturally learned biases. Rather than presenting balanced points of view, news organizations slant their coverage and reinforce biases in their target demographics. While it is true the public is free to explore alternate views presented from other sources, it requires the cumbersome task of going to multiple biased news sources to get varied points of view. Although that may seem to be an easy solution, too much alternate "truth" can be just as uncomfortable and disorientating as wearing someone else's eyeglasses. Also, it is often difficult to match the points made at one news source with another because some points are conveniently ignored. News organizations that truly want to be "unbiased" should embrace "equally biased" presentations of controversial issues. Only then can the public easily compare the points, in manageable bites, made by both sides of an issue, just as a jury renders a verdict after opposing lawyers present biased evidence, witness by witness.
"Equally biased" news presentations could take multiple forms in writing, radio, and TV, but they all should embrace the fundamental fairness structured into our legal system. For example, presentations should not allow labeling, insults, or projecting views onto their opposition. But more importantly, both points of view should be presented fairly by true advocates.
Recently, there has been a trend to use "fact-checkers" to label something as "misinformation," but the "fact-checkers" have their own bias. Alternately, some news sites either censor or ignore inconvenient information, which indicates that the news organization either is trying to hide something or has the arrogant view that only it has the "truth" and you are too dumb to sort it out for yourself.
Just as scientific theories should welcome challenges, so should the "truth." When a challenge exposes a weakness in a scientific theory, it eventually helps someone build a better understanding of our world. This also applies to our understanding of controversial issues. Consequently, just like in the legal process, each side should be allowed to challenge the facts. That process will help clarify conflicting information. A news organization wanting to elevate its credibility above competing organizations should be willing to take a chance and embrace this radical concept.
For the print and internet media, an article could start with a section covering information that is not in dispute and then take the form of a series of bullet points and counter-points presented in two side-by-side columns authored by advocates. Alternately, the controversial portion could be a series of clearly identified, concise paragraphs, with alternating advocates presenting points followed by a rebuttal. If the information is provided over the internet, links to sources can be embedded into the articles. For TV or radio news, it could take the form of having two presenters or guests presenting different points of view in a debate format, just like two friends going back and forth in short bursts. Leave the five-minute responses to the boring presidential debates, where you forget the question before the candidates finish their answers. Although there have been television shows that have used a similar format, often, dissenting representatives are outnumbered.
Alternately, have two advocates ask questions of a guest from two different perspectives, just like a witness being questioned by opposing lawyers during a trial. Over the years, entertaining courtroom dramas have been generated, and I believe that this format could be made interesting to viewers beyond the dedicated news junkies who watch the Sunday-morning news shows. Links to sources referenced in the show could be provided in a transcript available over the news broadcaster's website. With TV or radio, they have the extra burden of preventing the natural tendency of people to talk over each other. Leave that to Jerry Springer.
Many news organizations tailor their news coverage to their target consumer demographic. This results in different news being presented to politically segregated groups. Consequently, there is little chance of being exposed to an alternate view and little chance of actual persuasion occurring. This paradox presents an opportunity for a news organization seeking to reach across the truth canyon to distinguish itself from other news organizations. Presenting "equally biased" news would help bring trust to a news organization just as being able to see both five-star and one-star product reviews on Amazon gives one a better sense of what others think of a product. Although the presentation may not change extremely opinionated minds, it might allow them to better understand others who do not share their views.
Understanding the alternate point of view is the key to improving the civility of the discussions. The news organizations are guaranteed special protections under the First Amendment. In creating these protections, our founders knew the public needed to be "fully" informed to reach their verdict regarding public policy and the selection of leaders.
The "equally biased" approach has served our legal system well for centuries. Its tenets for fairness can work in our news organizations as well. It is time for the news organizations to own up to the mess they have created and help heal our country's deep political divide. "Equally biased" news would be a big step toward that goal.
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