Forget bias. Never mind sensationalism. The biggest problem with the media today is that human beings are involved.
Why is that a problem? Because every human being comes with her own upbringing, experiences, values, and opinions. Try as they might, then—and I sincerely believe they try their hardest—journalists can never attain perfect objectivity. Of course there’s bias; it can’t be any other way.
As a result, no one media outlet can provide the diversity of perspective that reasoned dialogue requires. To prepare ourselves for dialogue, then, we need a “balanced media diet”: a healthful blend of newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, TV news, and other sources that provide a cross-section of viewpoints. I took a look at this in my last post.
Now, what does a balanced media diet look like?
Part of it is pretty evident: we strive to absorb views across the political spectrum, as President Obama mentioned in his recent commencement address. Conservatives who love The Wall Street Journal or the National Review could try reading Mother Jones. Liberals who get their news from the Huffington Post could tune in to FOX News now and then. (Stop cringing. This hurts me worse than it hurts you.)
Straightforward, right? Except diversity comes in more than one flavor. For instance:
- Ethnicity. If Anglos like me tapped into Latino news sources, how much more would we learn about the immigration debate?
- Gender. GQ readers, when is the last time you picked up Ms. Magazine? And vice versa?
- Faith. If atheists subscribed to God’s Politics, how much common ground might they find?
- Reporting vs. analysis. Reporters by definition are held to a higher standard of balance and objectivity. Getting all one’s news from analysis and op-eds makes it too easy to absorb predigested opinion, however, thoughtful, as fact.
There’s another way to balance your media diet too: perusing media that themselves present a diversity of opinions. I think of these as the “mutual funds” of news. Just as each mutual fund contains a diverse array of investments, so these diverse media present us with more breadth of perspective per hour spent ingesting the news.
I personally gravitate toward these “mutual funds.” From the PBS NewsHour I get in-depth investigations of a few issues each evening, usually with a well-struck balance of insight and opinion. Our local newspaper carries a diverse blend of conservatives, liberals, and everyone in between. In the pages of Tikkun I read social and spiritual insights from across the spectrum of faith traditions. Because of its thoughtful insights and analysis, The Economist also makes my list; it gives me a bias toward the free market while reporting on some of the world’s least reported stories.
What happens when we take in a diverse media mix? Inevitably, we come across the same story from different angles—and begin to see the legitimacy of each point of view. The complexity of the situation and the lack of easy answers become clear. We grow instinctively skeptical of easy answers for any issue. We start to take political and social heroes with several grains of salt, knowing how fallible humans are and how quickly we fall. Overall, we gain wisdom, empathy, and an ability to live with ambiguity.
Of course, we can’t read or watch everything we can put our hands on. But to the extent we broaden our media mix, we broaden our perspective. And to the extent we broaden our perspective, we prepare ourselves more deeply for dialogue.