Balance Isn’t Enough: How PR Makes Everything a Wash

As the traditional media continues to radically cut back on the quality of its reporting during the fiscal collapse of the industry, it opens a lot of opportunities for unethical manipulation (chiefly by public relations practitioners; especially in the context of the declining power of advertising).

This problem is not new, because the decline in the quality of for-profit journalism is not new. Slowly (and with the help of heavy lobbying from the media corporations) the wall of separation between the ad sales office and the newsroom has eroded. One of the consequences has been that we’ve come to accept news coverage that gives equal time to “both sides” as being “balanced,” when nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is that nice guys finish last in the concision-minded medium of the traditional broadcast media.

So in the debate over environmental policy, scientists and academics who are honest about the limitations of research and who do their best to do the most comprehensive analysis (which can make such analysis difficult to understand) end up losing out in the arena of the news media which provides a false equivalency between academic research and the sort of partisan, pay-for-play research used by interest groups in disinformation campaigns.

That was the conclusion reached by Eric Pooley, Fellow at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy (and former editor of Fortune magazine) from a case study he did on how a “Cap and Trade” bill was defeated with assistance from a grotesque public relations campaign from the National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Council for Capital Formation. He recently appeared on an episode of On the Media.

The study of a research model of the NAM and the ACCF was pitted against a meta-study of five different models by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Pooley explains:

“These models, as I say in my paper, are not crystal balls. EDF said that right up front. You can’t believe any one model – that’s why they took the five best and put them together to see if there was some sort of rough consensus emerging – and there was. However, what their opponents have been doing is taking one very skewed report and pretending that they do have a crystal ball. […]

We took a sample of 40 stories that explored the cost of it [cap and
trade]. We found that seven of them were one-sided – on one side or the other, 24 were balanced in a sort of stenographer sort of sense, it was the ‘he said,’ ‘she said’ opposition and then nine stories attempted to play what I call a ‘referee’ – calling one side or another if they were playing fast and loose with the facts. And that’s my model for how you have to work a very contentious policy debate like this.

Reporters aren’t getting the time on the beat that they need to master this material, and if you don’t master the material you can’t hold the combatants to any sort of standard because they will game you.”

Given the current climate in the newsmedia, this situation may likely get worse before it gets better (especially at the local level where coverage has already been deficient for years). There is no clear solution to this problem. Certainly the medium of the Internet will continue to help individuals quickly brush up on complex concepts, but thus far it’s not proven to be a cure-all.

[Read Eric Pooley’s Case Study “How Much Would You Pay to Save the Planet? The American Press and the Economics of Climate Change“]

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