Modern Democracy, Modern Journalism: Who watches the Watchdogs?
Three things that everyone can do to shed opinion bias.
Adrian Vore of the San Diego Union-Tribune echos a long-held opinion among some that there should there be a role for “watchdog journalism” – that there ought to be an organization or other body that monitors bias in the news media. In a modern democracy? In American democracy? He explains himself pretty well. And I agree, to an extent. I have a caveat.
My caveat is derived from the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition. Some people also call the guarantees of the First Amendment the Five Pillars of the U.S. Constitution. My problem with Mr. Vore’s summation is how he concludes that The People need a watchdog as a protector from undue bias. The way he makes that suggestion is that the duty of “watchdog” is someone else’s job? “They” perhaps?
This assumption – I believe – reaches into a mistaken belief that The Pillars are entitlements that are self-maintaining and incorruptible as the sun. Guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, these rights certainly seem incorruptible. Yet, as with all guarantees, they erode over time from lack of attention and use. Without direct investment from every individual – they atrophy and whither away like water on a hot pavement. Therefore, rights are not to be delegated to ‘others’ for safekeeping. For us to maintain a strong democracy, we must exercise our rights with great deliberation. If we are to protect our rights, and preserve them for future generations, we must be willing to make a direct investment of time for our full involvement and engagement.
The true test for democracy has never been whether or if there are enough journalists who can play the role of watchdog (and to have the capacity to do so with clarity). The real crux of the issue is whether we have enough citizens who are willing to invest enough of themselves to produce real results through critical thinking and analysis. The question ought to be whether citizen readers know how to get to the throat of an issue so that informed decisions and opinions are possible.
There are Three Paths you can take to make news consumption more productive. They will help you fulfill your citizen responsibility – to be as informed as possible on the major issues – without undue influence from newsmakers and others who WILL try to steer your opinions.
First Path: never avoid a source because of a perceived bias. As a former journalist and a lifetime reader, I KNOW that all news is biased to some degree or another. Knowing how to recognize bias is difficult. Your personal bias may trigger a false positive response. So the decision must be an active one: don’t let information come to you; pursue it.
Second Path: understand that personal bias is directly proportional to the number of sources. The smaller your sources, the more affected by bias you’ll be. Broaden your scope of intake, and bias will filter down automatically. So, while you read/watch CNN and Fox, also read Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio (NPR), Breitbart, Huffington, WashingtonTimes, Republic, Atlantic Monthly, Telegraph, Al Jezzera… Get the picture?
Third Path: never react to headlines. The headline is there to stop you in your tracks and get you to read/watch the story. Why? Because you have to think about the core business for almost all news organizations: they sell ads. You may believe that NPR is the one exception to this rule, but remember that they are beholden to their big donors.
So, as for watchdogs… who watches the watcher? That’ll be me, for myself.