For members of the media, perception is usually reality
In my mother’s office at Opelika Middle School, there’s one very prominent flyer on the bulletin board. It reads, “Perception IS Reality!”
It’s a somewhat unfair truth about working in the news media, and really anywhere: If enough people believe something, then what they believe becomes the truth. The reality of the situation doesn’t matter anymore.
For a news reporter, maybe the most difficult perception to fight is the perception of bias. No respectable reporter wants his sources to perceive him as favoring one side over the other.
The first newspaper that ever employed me, for example, was and is owned by a prominent state politician. To be fair, he’d bought the publication before entering politics as part of a will settlement and never dictated to the newsroom that he receive favorable press, even during his campaigns.
But that never really mattered. Reporters covering news automatically found themselves behind a figurative eight ball; we were either in the tank for our boss or compensating to prove we were not. There was no way to win.
Television news networks struggle in similar areas. The fact is, fair or otherwise, Fox News will always be the “conservative” news network in the eyes of the viewing public. The rhetoric of “fair and balanced” won’t change the minds of people who have already made their choices; the perception has become the reality.
This, of course, is why ESPN’s television deal with the University of Texas to create the “Longhorn Network” is so disturbing to simple people like me.
It would be foolish to say they should’ve walked away from $15 million a year. Having said that, where does this leave the everyday grunts charged with reporting the news for ESPN? How are they supposed to represent themselves?
“Hi, I’m calling from ESPN to discuss the charges again your program for NCAA violations … Yessir, I’m aware my employer has a multi-million TV deal with Texas … Nosir, they’re not making me report this story … Nosir, I’m not ignoring bad things at Texas … I promise …”
Look, we all understand the line a news organization has to straddle when it comes to its advertisers. We have sell ads to stay in business and get paid … but we also have a job to do, and that job involves reporting the news, no matter how unpleasant, sometimes about people we really like. It’s the nature of the beast.
What happens, though, is that every reporter now has a presumed bias before even starting out. There’s no slaying that beast; you can only hope to fight it off, hopefully to a draw.
Thursday, August 25, 2011
back on the horse with a new column
Finally got back to writing newspaper columns this week after a two-week hiatus. I don't have an explanation — well, I do, but it's lame and basically has to do with a lack of newspaper space — but hopefully you can enjoy this week's edition. As always, you're welcome to complain here or on Twitter. Thanks.