Why Media Criticism Matters

“Everybody complains about the weather, but no one actually does anything about it.”

attributed to Charles Dudley Warner

Mr. Warner’s sentiment about the weather is, I suspect, somewhat analogous to public sentiment about the news media in the 21st century. It’s difficult to find a person who doesn’t have some complaint about national and local news media, and yet Americans seem to view the media in the same light as the federal government and giant corporations: distant, powerful, unaccountable entities who represent no interests except their own.

Elections are, in theory, supposed to hold politicians accountable. Corporations can be kept in check with regulation and competition. Insofar as news media organizations are corporations, they also must cope with regulation and competition, but their special role as watchdogs and truth-tellers means that they must be held to an even higher standard.

Who holds the news media to this higher standard? News consumers, of course, but media critics must as well, by virtue of their ability to police journalism according to its own principles and ethics, and their ability to explicitly act as consumer advocates without running afoul of gatekeepers and managers.

Today, too much of media criticism is simply masked partisanship. From Accuracy In Media to Media Matters for America, the criticism proceeds from a partisan assumption (for example, that the media is either too liberal or too conservative) and then cherry-picks examples to support the chosen thesis. Organizations like these hardly view each other as peers, let alone as colleagues or allies, and so two of the nation’s most well-known media watchdogs are as likely to be at each other’s throats as they are to be shining spotlights on their supposed targets.

The brand of popular media criticism practiced by Jon Stewart (and, to a lesser degree, Stephen Colbert) has earned accolades from scholars like Arthur S. Hayes, who cited Stewart’s takedown of CNN’s Crossfire and Colbert’s roast of the Washington, D.C., press corps in his book Press Critics Are the Fifth Estate as examples of the effectiveness of satirical critiques. But Stewart in particular is not so much interested in promoting the principles of journalism as he is in practicing a sort of cynical, “pox on both your houses” brand of humorous social commentary. He has been singled out for his deployment of false equivalence in a strained effort to appear “balanced.” Furthermore, whenever Stewart’s influence as a satirist of news and politics is brought up, he is quick to describe himself as “only a comedian” so he can have his cake (of influential, stinging criticism) and eat it too (without being accountable for any mistakes or failures).

Once we set aside the partisans and comedians, that doesn’t leave many truly popular national media critics operating fully in the public eye. Just to name a few: we have Jay Rosen, an NYU professor and adviser to Pierre Omidyar’s FirstLook project. There’s Brooke Gladstone, host and editor of NPR show On the Media. There’s Glenn Greenwald, whose journalism includes a great deal of media criticism. The New York Times’ David Carr does some media criticism mixed in with his reporting on the media industry. There’s Dylan Byers of Politico, Jack Shafer of Reuters (formerly Slate), and then there’s Howard Kurtz, formerly of CNN and now at Fox News (and sometimes the target of other critics).

Every media critic named in the previous paragraph is either currently working as a journalist or has been a working journalist in the past, which sometimes leads to stories that come across as insider news or industry reporting. This piece by Dylan Byers is a good example of something that would be of interest only to news media insiders, Beltway careerists, or devoted fans instead of ordinary news consumers.

If news consumers are not interested in partisan sniping, or cynical snark, or inside baseball, then why should they be interested in media criticism? In fact, why should the professionals who produce and oversee all of that news content care what media critics have to say? If the audience is responding (with ratings, clicks, subscriptions, and so on), then what else matters?

The simple fact: Far more is at stake than ratings, subscription numbers or revenue reports. News media is more than just another product in the universe of consumer goods and services and the galaxy of information/entertainment options. It shapes our perceptions of our nations, our cities, our neighborhoods and each other. It has a very real effect on our lives.

A great deal of research has repeatedly demonstrated that both local and national television news have strong, measurable effects on our attitudes. These effects are particularly well-documented when it comes to crime and racial issues. Dr. Travis Dixon in particular has shown that:

• Black and Latino people are significantly more likely to be disproportionately portrayed as lawbreakers on television news (Dixon & Linz, 2000)

• Viewers who are repeatedly exposed to the overrepresentation of black criminality on television news were more likely to perceive black people as violent (Dixon, 2008)

• Viewers who are repeatedly exposed to the overrepresentation of black criminality on television news were more likely to support the death penalty (Dixon & Azocar, 2007)

• Viewers who are repeatedly exposed to the overrepresentation of black criminality on television news were less likely to believe that black Americans struggle with institutionalized racism (Dixon & Azocar, 2007)

Furthermore, television news viewers are more likely to report being afraid of walking around in their neighborhoods (Weitzer & Kubrin, 2004); “viewing local television news is related to increased fear of and concern about crime” (Romer, Jamieson, & Aday, 2003); white television news viewers are more likely to subtly endorse stereotypes of African-Americans after seeing news reports depicting black criminals (Gorham, 2006); and television news stories are more likely to depict as victims white people  than people of color (Bjornstrom, Kaufman, Peterson, & Slater, 2010), despite the fact that white people make up a much smaller percentage of violent crime victims.

Add it all up and you get a wildly distorted picture of the world around us; when you consider that influential people such as lawmakers, teachers, judges, prosecutors, and police officers also watch local television news, the situation becomes even more serious. People who watch local television news are more likely to believe pernicious racial myths about crime, especially interracial crime. As scholar Tim Wise has noted, “any given black person in the United States is about 2.8 times more likely to be killed by a white person than any given white person is to be murdered by a black person.” But you would never glean that fact from watching local TV news.

This is precisely why media criticism matters. When local institutions of journalism grossly distort reality by overemphasizing crime, it’s not a minor detail to be considered alongside ratings, awards, click-through rates, and other metrics; it’s a serious violation of journalistic ethics. Such distortion contributes to a climate of fear and prejudice and has real-world consequences for real human beings.

Just imagine the public reaction if researchers demonstrated that a particular genre of music was likely to increase racial prejudice and paranoia. Retailers would refuse to carry it; parents would not allow it in their homes; politicians would condemn it; schools would outlaw it; activists would work tirelessly against it.

One year ago, I became WFPL’s media critic, and one of my first columns was about Louisville TV news outlets overemphasizing crime stories. I have written about it several times since then, not as an expression of my personal tastes and preferences in journalism, but out of a real concern that these distortions were making our community worse, not better.

At the end of my last column, I invited the news directors of Louisville’s TV stations to engage in a public debate with me over whether or not news coverage of individual crimes does more harm than good. One month later, no one has accepted the challenge—no surprise, given the vast amount of evidence that exhaustive crime coverage has specific negative effects upon local TV news viewers.

The invitation still stands, and I will gladly debate this topic in any public venue, but it may be more productive to instead discuss specific ways that we as a community would like to see Louisville news improve as a whole. I plan to organize a public forum on that particular topic and will announce it here on wfpl.org and on Twitter when the details are finalized.

(Readers interested in examples of good journalism from local media should follow @LKYMedia on Twitter.)

Update: The Ville Voice provided some disturbing and specific evidence of local news consumers’ reaction to a crime story in a post on Monday. Warning: Graphic racism.

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