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Mike Rosmann, Published June 14 2013

Rosmann: Skeptical view needed on biased media

Is it becoming more difficult for you to sort out the truth from misleading information in the media?

Too many television news broadcasters, radio talk show hosts and print journalists say whatever advances their view on an issue, even making up information rather than considering dissenting information with an open mind. Some elected leaders have adopted similar misleading tactics.

Take climate change for example. A quick flip of radio talk shows reveals opinionated hosts who cling to a particular viewpoint on climate change and lambast anyone who sees things differently.

Actually, there is a range of scientific evidence and observations about global warming. Like most matters, climate change is not an “all or nothing” phenomenon.

Shrinking polar ice caps provide evidence that our planet is in a warming phase. On the other hand, the colder-than-usual spring in the northern hemisphere calls that conclusion into question.

People’s opinions about whether our planet is warming vary, too. A September 2012 survey of 1,058 Americans by the Yale University Climate Change Project indicated some respondents were “alarmed” (16 percent) by prospects of global warming, while others were “concerned” (29 percent), “cautious” (25 percent), “disengaged” (9 percent), “doubtful” (13 percent) or “dismissive” (8 percent).

A May 20, 2013, report by the same Yale University group shows the number of Americans who think global warming should be a priority for Congress and the president is down 5 percent since fall 2012.

How do we determine what is accurate? Some news broadcasts and publications strive to tell all sides to an issue and allow the listener or reader to form an opinion. These are the sources of information we should pay attention to.

As a general rule, whenever a reporter or journalist starts off with a negative statement about a person or interpretation of an event with which they disagree, we need to become skeptical that we will learn the full story.

Making decisions should not be a guessing game or a capitulation to what we read, watch on television, listen to on the radio and see in social media. In general, the media need an ethical overhaul.

Codes of ethics in media have been around since 1947 when the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press said professional reporters have an obligation to society to use their freedom and power responsibly.

Not enough has been done since then to strengthen codes of ethics and their application in the media. One of the most important sets of ethical guidelines, the National Association of Broadcasters code, which was adopted in 1951, says the use of profanity, illicit sex, drunkenness and excessive violence on radio and television programs are inappropriate.

While the NAB code has merit insofar as it goes, it does not address the obligation of the media to report information as accurately and completely as possible and without spinning facts to support a preconceived interpretation.

Other codes of ethics, such as the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, the First Amendment Handbook and the Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters, are too often ignored. Their relevance and enforcement are questionable.

All media providers, professionals, their organizations, governmental agencies, educators and other groups relevant to the discussion, should come together to develop comprehensive standards of accuracy, fairness and disciplinary policies for all media practitioners. Their recommendations should also address civil discourse.

As Thomas Jefferson said, “Lady Liberty will flourish only if freedom of speech is on her left side and civil discourse is on her right side.”

Decisions should be based on careful management of risks. Risk management involves seeking as much information as reasonably possible, including points of view that promote, and counter, the option you are seeking.

A cardinal rule from General Systems Theory applies: “The more information and points of view the decision-maker considers, the more likely an optimal outcome will emerge.”

It is especially important to keep an open mind to information that disagrees with what we desire, because it might offer us a solution in the end. The media should implement the General Systems Theory axiom and not automatically pursue only information that supports an ideological belief.

If European legal authorities some five centuries ago would have objectively considered dissenting information, they would not have castigated Nicholas Copernicus when he theorized the earth was not the center of the solar system – as they wanted to believe – and instead revolved around a larger mass, the sun.

Farmers and consumers should keep an open mind toward products and practices that advertisements and other media promote, but we should also seek objective information about them from independent reviewers and not just from the manufacturers and proponents.

Perhaps good risk management guided the considerations by corn farmers about what varieties to plant to plant this spring. A larger number of corn producers than ever before selected seed varieties that have built-in tolerance to hot dry conditions.


Rosmann can be contacted at www.agbehavioralhealth.com.