Media needs to do a better job pursuing the truth

There is nothing more frustrating as a consumer of news than a news broadcast, press conference or other media event that gives us little more than a recycled re-hash of press releases and answers that don’t address the issues or questions asked.

We live in a society with an instantaneous, up-to-the-second ability to go anywhere in the world to witness historic, news-making events offering unfiltered views, away from the biased spin of partisan-journalists and public relations handlers. While pictures-or digital images to be technologically accurate-allow us to see for ourselves, the words behind those images often fall short of providing any real, expository information on any subject.

What’s the reason for the disparity? Are local and national media asking the right questions, are they providing their readers/viewers with accurate and honest information, or simply reporting the words of the spin-doctors they are covering?

In Wisconsin we’ve just gone through a tumultuous few months debating the Budget Repair Bill and attempts to reduce-or eliminate-collective bargaining for public sector employees. We’ve seen 14 State Senators leave the state to avoid a quorum in the State Legislature and elected officials attempt to rush through legislation designed to implement Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair proposals. We’ve witnessed a Supreme Court election with as many twists and turns as an episode of ABC’s Castle, resulting in a state-wide recount. Through all of those adventures-and that’s putting a positive spin on it-we continue to suffer from an embarrassing absence of fact.

Some examples from the state perspective include the failure of local media to report the exact locations of the ‘missing’ Wisconsin State Senators despite knowing where they were staying in Illinois. The media narrative on the Senators began by characterizing them as ‘fleeing’ or ‘missing’ and never moved off of that depiction despite local reporters doing live shots in front of the very hotels where they were located-or at least very nearby.

A more recent example was the press conference held by Supreme Court candidate Joanne Kloppenburg who claimed several times during her event that there were voting irregularities in many counties in the state. She was asked once to provide detail on that claim, but failed to do so. Her campaign committee provided no evidence in the follow-up to the press conference, and the media quickly moved on to covering the impending recount.
On the national scene, media coverage of the Congressional budget debate and the implications for entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security illustrate how a politically-based news narrative can take hold, leaving the public to wonder what is fact- versus-fiction.

Significantly more time in national media coverage is spent on Democrat or Republican responses to the other’s budget proposals, than on the real-life effects of those proposals. Now sorting out the details of a multi-billion dollar budget is no simple task, and even Nobel Prize-winning economists can disagree. But to abandon any attempt to establish some level of truth in these discussions is a failure to live up to even basic journalistic standards.

Locally, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Politifact-Wisconsin makes an admirable attempt at shining the light on the news, but the end result is often less clarity-not more.

Declaring a political statement “partly true” hardly conveys a sense of truth and honesty to the reader.

BizTimes.com seems to recognize the importance of allowing the reader to use their own filters to view perceived politicization or bias in the news. Readers can contribute to the public dialogue through the Milwaukee Biz Blog, and its associated comments section. To their credit, their reporters also avoided using terms like “missing” or “hiding out” to describe the 14 State Senators once their location was determined.

Researching and reporting the news is no easy job, and many members of the media often do a good job in ferreting out the story, sifting through the smoke-screen put in their way by campaign goons and paid consultants, ultimately getting to the heart of the story. But if we’re going to remove politics and public relations from news coverage, we need the media to ask tougher questions, with better follow-up, and even tougher questions for those who mislead or misrepresent. The public consumers of news should expect nothing less.

 

Steve Scaffidi is an Oak Creek alderman.

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