Monday, March 23, 2015

Media Objectivity? Nah. Honesty & Responsibility? Maybe. (2 Dec. 2013)

 "No blood, no news" — Chicago TV station manager, 1970
(and Dean Rusk, disapproving)
                  "The observer is part of the system." — Chem 101, day 1, 1961

            I am not feeling very positive right about now toward American journalism, nor, for that matter, a whole lot of fictional movies and "reality" TV shows. More exactly, right about now, I'm pretty disgusted.

            There was a train derailment in the Bronx this morning, and at least four people are confirmed dead (the number may be higher by the time you read this). The fact of a train wreck is indeed news, and there may be important news coming out of the story, but as of 10 AM Pacific Standard Time on Sunday, 1 December 2013, there was just the quickly-reported fact of the wreck when CNN went full frontal on what they admitted — indeed, stressed — was "BREAKING NEWS" and pre-empted Fareed Zakaria's GPS program to show an aerial photo and get comments from witnesses and, essentially, invite a substantial audience to gawk at a transportation accident.

            Now that, in a sense, is objectivity: the nasty sense of treating other feeling and thinking creatures (your fellow human beings, fellow citizens) as objects of spectacle and whatever the word is for the analog of spectacle when you're not voyeuristically viewing but listening.

            Serious consideration of how we in America have failed to maintain much of our infrastructure, with passenger railroads a prime example — now that is worth in-depth coverage. But the roadbed in the Bronx may've been newly repaired and the tracks in peachy-keen condition; the accident may've been caused by some variety of human error that falls into the category of "Horrors happen."

            CNN didn't know because they were reporting "BREAKING NEWS" and therefore mostly not news at all. They could have shown the recorded Fareed Zakaria program and gotten to the train wreck later — at least, let's say, a day later — when there'd be actual information to report.

            And I'd be a viewer interested in such information, since I take trains regularly and had just e-mailed to a travel agent (younger readers can look up "travel agent") my tentative itinerary for a trip involving Amtrak's Texas Eagle Los Angeles to Chicago and the Southwest Chief Chicago to LA, plus a number of shorter trips on commuter runs.

            However, if I'm in a train that goes off the tracks, I'd prefer it if the media whores — including amateur media sluts with cell phone cameras — kept their distance until there was some solid news, the reporting whereof might serve the public interest. So my elliptical-trainer gym viewing got me pissed off enough to inspire exercise but didn't give help my staying informed.

            I returned from the gym to read a page-one story in my local newspaper, "Americans lose trust / Poll finds suspicion lurks in dealings with others." Somewhat mischievously, I checked out the editorial section to see if there was a mea culpa there from the Editorial Board of The Ventura County Star or some columnist. Silly me! There was, of course no apology from the Star, and I doubt there will be apologies from more than a couple media outlets — out of hundreds or thousands (depending what you count) — for their contributions to American distrust of most institutions and of one another.

             "If it bleeds, / It leads," as they say in the TV news trade, and, more generally, "Good news is no news." American news media, along with police dramas and "reality" shows like COPS, present to viewers an America in which dangers to life limb lurk around every corner. Every school shooting in White and/or upscale neighborhoods gets major media play; "sex trafficking" is talked about as if it were the 18th-century slave trade; and the media offer a figurative megaphone for every member of The Responsible Parents Brigade pushing a doctrine of "Stranger Danger" and the risk of letting children boot up the computer and go on line, let alone out the door.

            Plus, of course, we get all warnings against fraud and scams and the significantly named "confidence games."

            There is nothing wrong with any of this in moderation. Shoot-em-up/Blow-em-up movies can be fun; murder, rape, mayhem, theft and major felonies are news; and there are, God knows, some real asshole gonifs out there waiting to rip off the unwary.

            What is missing in the rough arts of popular culture is some balance of the sort audiences once saw in Shakespeare's obscenely bloody King Lear. There's violence in Lear, but also acts of gratuitous kindness and decency to balance somewhat — the proportion is 1:3 — acts of viciousness. What is missing in the news is context combined with a sense of proportion.

            Instead of the opening news-story paragraphs of disturbing or uplifting "human interest" before getting to, say, some school-house horror, we could have a brief explanation of how rare school violence is and how safe US schools generally are. After we've been reminded that even in dangerous neighborhoods — maybe especially in dangerous neighborhoods — school are about the safest places kids can be, then the reporter can hit us with the grisly, reader-grabbing, ad-selling details of Gunfight at Alferd Packer Memorial High.

            Summary time:

            Objectivity in any strong sense of the term is impossible. As I learned in Introductory Chemistry, and you should have learned somewhere in school, "The observer is part of the system." This is a rule even in physics or astronomy. To measure the position and/or vector of a small particle, you have to measure it, which will change the system in ways that can't be predicted exactly; so you get the uncomfortable fact of Uncertainty: get an exact measurement — an ideal measurement — of position, and you can't know the velocity; get an exact measure of vector velocity (I'm mixing terms here), and you can't determine position. In astronomy, you needn't worry about, say, looking at the Crab Nebula and affecting it. However, you, a human and a specific human, are looking at it, and it may be that the most interesting things about the Crab Nebula can't be detected with vision or any other sense with which human beings have evolved. It may be that the most interesting things about the Crab Nebula can only be learned with senses and/or instruments of which we can't conceive. "The observer is part of the system" even in astronomy if for no other reason than you can't get observations for human-conducted science without involving humans.

            Objectivity in some strong sense is more clearly impossible if you have humans dealing with humans. An anthropologist can't write a paper delivering to us The Village; s/he can only give us the village with an anthropologist wandering around asking weird questions. Or we get the village with an anthropologist viewing it from close enough that s/he will report villagers acting suspiciously, like they thought someone was spying on them — or we get a necessarily vague report from a distant observer.

            Journalists can't give you The Story; they can only give you stories as put together by journalists, who change things just by their presence — think of turning the cameras on at a demonstration — or by asking questions. What's been called New York Times objective style, reporting without the word "I," is always and necessarily at least a small lie. A novelist can give you a story with a "third-person, 'omniscient' Narrator," because the novelist is the creator of the world narrated; reporters can only give you stories with reporters poking around in them: reporters who are actual human beings (most of them) with feelings, beliefs, ideas, ideologies, language, and the other standard human psychological equipment. So some bias is inevitable.

            Objectivity in a literal, moral sense is not desirable; treating journalistic subjects like objects is reprehensible. Objectivity in a literal, "epistemological" sense is impossible: neither reporters nor anyone else can get outside the world and describe it with the accuracy of a god.

            Media folk, though, can try to report honestly, fairly, and compassionately. They can educate their reader about contexts and give some idea of proportion (statistics can be handy here, e.g., in assessments of "Stranger Danger" or risk assessment generally). Studio executives can try to avoid the mildly grotesque voyeurism of "reality" television and shark-week/car-crash news. Studio executives can hire producers who'll use writers who can grab an audience's attention without house invasions or child abductions by pedophile cannibals or "blowing shit up."

            The media can do better than invite us to gawk at car crashes and train wrecks, or play on our fears.

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