For weeks I have been meaning to take a look at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press ("Press Accuracy Rating Hits Two Decade Low"). It didn't deal specifically with religion reporting -- or any other particular beat -- but it showed that only 29 percent of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight and only 26 percent felt that news organizations tried to avoid political bias. I thought of that poll again when I read this wonderful interview of Daniel Okrent in the Harvard Citizen, the student newspaper. Okrent, who was the New York Times' first (and best, in my opinion) public editor, is a visiting lecturer at Harvard. He was editor-at-large at Time, Inc., editor of new media for all Time publications and managing editor of Life magazine.
The interview covers a lot of ground about the state of the media today. The grad student who interviews him begins by asking whether news organizations should ignore conspiracy theorists. Okrent patiently explains that you can't deny the reality that conspiracy theorists exist. You cover the groups and in so doing provide the evidence that debunks their views. Seems simple enough. There's discussion of how the media focuses on politics and controversy rather than determining what is factual and accurate. Okrent discusses the Pew poll above; how greater access to the public square because of technological advances leads to more divergent media voices; and how an extremist editorial page can lead news consumers to think that the news product is also biased.
I think some of what Okrent advances is relevant to the discussions we have here at GetReligion.
Oh but there is a shortage of conservatives working in the news media -- or, I should say, an imbalance between liberals and conservatives. The last survey I saw was on the '04 election -- I don't know what it was in '08 -- but in '04 something like 75 percent of working journalists at daily newspapers voted for the Democrat. I mean, you can't deny this. It's a reality.
After a discussion of how everyone on the New York Times editorial board was a Democrat and how he felt that more diversity would lead to richer debate on that page, Okrent says that when a news organization's editorial page seems to be gunning for or against a particular partisan aim, it colors the way people view their news coverage. After painting a rather dismal picture about the lack of balance in mainstream media, Okrent says:
You can only contest it with the work that you do. And so that means maybe changing the lineup of op-ed writers and also being really careful in the news pages. ... We see what we see because of the way we stand. If we're facing east in the morning we see the sun rise, and if we're not facing east the sun isn't rising. So when you put together a news staff, you have to ask where do your people stand? Are you getting people who are, together, looking in all directions? Are we getting a really representative newsroom? When I was at the paper I criticized it pretty strongly for not having ideological diversity or religious diversity on the staff. The same reason we would want racial diversity , to provide different perspectives on the world, would suggest that we want the same thing religiously and ideologically and philosophically. And I was very roundly criticized by some people on the left about that, people who thought it was an outrage that I was suggesting that the Times hire more conservatives. Why is that an outrage? Why is it an outrage to get a more varied view of the world? We want a varied view if we're going to be good citizens, if we're going to have a functioning democracy. We must have a varied view.
It's a blessing that, through the internet and other technological advances, we can now get that more varied view of the world ourselves. I'm sure I'm not alone in getting my news and analysis from a mix of the left, right and mushy middle. But I agree with Okrent that it might be nice if news outlets brought some of that vibrant debate into their insular newsrooms and editorial boards as well. That requires a healthy diversity of religious and ideological views, it would seem.