Same job, different uniform.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Quantum Media

Almost from the point where scriveners began watching and documenting events, the media has liked to view itself as a neutral observer. Stuff happens, and the fine chap with the quill pen shows up to scrawl down the events as they happened. And this is pretty much where the problems start, because, as any number of psychological experiments demonstrate, perception is solipsistic and entirely dependent upon the observations of observers who have their own prejudices and preconceived notions.

Now, this is not necessarily a problem when you are dealing with news like train wrecks or things blowing up. The reporter simply notes that a train wrecked, a thing exploded, and that the rescue workers are clearing the debris. On the other hand, problems immediately begin when the reporter begins to analyze the things he has seen. He has to make some guesses, ask some (what he hopes are) shrewd questions, and make some assumptions. If something explodes, either something stopped working correctly or some nameless someone decided that whatever exploded necessarily needed to explode, and thereafter designed a way to make that eventuate. He may very well be right, but if he is wrong, he is establishing a false meme that may or may not be corrected in the future.

Nowadays, the reporter gets the details on audio- or videotape for the voyeuristic satisfaction of everyone who wasn’t actually there to witness the train wreck. But keep in mind that members of the media do not take sides, we are told; it is their job to merely record events as best they can, and then try to provide perspective to help us understand what has happened. Avatars of the American media have bent over backwards to avoid the appearance of being shills for the US Government, seeking to be, instead, the calm, impartial providers of Truth.

The problem with this perspective is that it is hogwash. To look this particular hog squarely in the eyes, it might be helpful to examine the problem by means of quantum theory, a concept formally and more appropriately applied to physics.

Quantum theory involves, among a plethora of other things, the observation of elemental particles, quarks with interesting and flavorful names. Heisenberg noted that when one chooses to focus upon the momentum of elemental particles, one becomes correspondingly less capable of determining where they are at a particular moment in time. The converse is true as well, as pinpointing location makes one correspondingly less capable of observing their momentum. Of course, one can choose to try and look at both factors simultaneously, but then both measurements are indistinct and nebulous. This entire problem is obviously paradoxical and serves to make one’s head numb, but the key point to consider is this: the act of observation changes that which is being observed. The correlations are obvious.

Translate that curious observation to the media and how it operates. When a story is written about someone, the perception of that person by those people who previously knew the subject and also read the story will change, however slightly, due to that story. Further, during the interview, the person being observed will likely act differently than is normally his wont as he knows he is under scrutiny.

Bluntly, the media very often dispenses “Truth” when what they are selling is opinion or worse. As Ralph Peters pointed out acidly in the 10/8/03 issue of the New York Post:

The media are not detached from all responsibility for the events they cover. A journalist will tell you - sometimes sincerely - that he or she only reports the facts. That's never quite the truth. And it's often an outright lie.

When the media broadcasts a story, very often they become part of it, even when they work very hard not to be. And they often do not work particularly hard at it.

Agendas drive much of what passes for news these days. Reporters, editors and publishers have an angle in mind or a particular outcome they are interested in perpetuating, and often the reality they confront is not entirely reflected within the stories they report. The consequences are obvious; controlling the presses means controlling the press, and those who control the press control what gets to be the news. And the rest of us either live with that or don’t. If we don’t, our choices are fairly circumscribed; like Rupert Murdoch, we pretty much have to buy our own presses. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily an option that most of us have; in fact, it’s worse than that. We not only do not have the option of buying our own press (or microphone, television or radio network or what have you), but we are also stuck watching MASH reruns.

Unless you generally get your news on the ‘net…which is also ideologically driven, but at least bloggers are honest about their biases.

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Blogger Lois E. Lane said...

As a media consumer and human being, it would be untruthful to deny that observations are colored by the observer. But as a newspaperwoman and editor, I can say that most in our profession try to do the "objective" label some justice. Some try harder than others, obviously.

But try is all we can do, because we ARE humans. There can be no absolute objectivity, but we can come close. Many times I or my husband have been faced with decisions to run editorials we thought were over the edge, or to tap into sources we had no personal affection for. But believe it or not, good journalists are trained to take their interests out of the picture and instead put the story first.

Here's the fact of the matter: Newspapers are businesses, period. If people don't like what they read, they stop buying and the publication goes out of business. Or readers can actively fight against what they see as bias by writing letters to the editor. Advertisers can sell their goods elsewhere. In any case, this is America, and no one is forcing readers to buy the morning paper.

That being said, there are indeed far too many "reporters" out there -- even a handful would be too much -- poisoning the profession with their skewed story leads and lopsided headlines. But in the spirit of folks such as Edward R. Murrow, this is something great journalists will never stop battling.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Blogger girlfriday said...

I'm only afraid that the two of you are too smart for me.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


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