Media is a tricky business. Regular readers here know that Western media bias is a frequent topic on this blog. Few days ago, Rosa Sow, a community manager at Newsy.com, contacted me to embed an video from her company on my post, “China Daily reports, “Japan apologizes for annexation of Korean Peninsula”.” I refused. I was angry at the Western media, and I didn’t think it was possible another could come out and make “truth” and “fairness” its mission. A conversation ensued. At the end of it, I was mainly impressed by Newsy’s approach to this issue.
Our conversation started with her solicitation (email addresses removed):
On Tue, Aug 10, 2010 at 1:55 PM, Rosa Sow wrote:
I read your post about Japan’s attempts to atone for its past colonization of Korea. I agree with your premise that tensions have to cool before apologies can be made, and according to that maxim this is a good sign for inter-regional relations. I think you will find this video about the apology interesting. The video uses news coverage from different sources to detail different perspectives on the impact of the apology. It includes commentary from Prime Minister Naoto Kan. It also features reactions from older Koreans who still feel resentment toward Japan for their extended colonization of the peninsula. I hope you will consider embedding the video in your post.
I was not impressed by the video nor some other videos I found on Newsy.com, so I replied:
On Aug 11, 2010, at 2:46 AM, YinYang
Thanks for referring the video. Honestly, I am not very impressed with Newsy. The somewhat admirable part about Newsy is that your organization is including perspectives from other sources (certainly make you unique). While “fair and balanced” on the surface, Newsy seems to be suffering from the same immoral and propagandistic behavior that is so typical of the Western media.
If you are interested in understanding my point – this is why:
Take a look at this video:
Of course, everyone knows, a metric that is critically important for populous countries like China and India are the per capita figures. Compare to American consumers, the Chinese consumers are saints. Certainly, it’s important to look at a country’s total consumption. But it is also equally critical to consider the per capita angle. That angle is missing from this Newsy video. So, the problem with Western media is their self-touting virtue of supporting fairness and these various values. When its fairness for others, they go out the window. And, best of all, the media can do it in a way that Americans are completely oblivious.
That then leads to Americans feeling entitled to an out-sized proportion of the world’s resources.
And my issue with the Japan apology report? While it appears “broad” in perspective, it in fact is not. It does not cover the angle I wrote in my post. In fact, the punchline at the end is whether Japan doing this out of political expedience. That’s not helpful in my view.
She defends the video:
On Wed, Aug 11, 2010 at 1:45 AM, Rosa wrote:
I understand what you are saying, but western media adheres to this nebulous, and I personally feel, misguided view of journalism. The fundamental point of contention I have is the “myth of objectivism” it is an ideal that we can only tend toward and never achieve. But, for an example, the video you suggested, granted the statistical basis for the story may be flawed in obvious ways but the overarching point is that China’s quality of life is improving, that a middle class is forming. For me, the crux of that story is that China, a “communist” society is becoming a consumer driven economy society. Yes, this is directly related to the per capita issue you raise, but that is ancillary, it’s a given that China has a large population. A fifth of humanity lives in China. Of course the stats are skewed by the population. But the rote stat isn’t the story, the story is that China, unlike the US is experiencing an economic and cultural period of growth. Yes, western media is messy and flawed, yes, I get that to the rest of the world we seem like backwoods sheep but as far as new media goes at least Newsy is trying to emulate the ideal of a free press. When it come to western media, can you think of something better? You are challenging and interesting, and your honest opinion is something I’d be interested in. Thanks for bearing with me this is a long email. Hope you write back.
Sent from my iPhone
I said Newsy needs 中庸:
I disagree the per capita angle is ancillary. The main narrative in the U.S. is that the rise in Chinese energy consumption means a lowered consumption by Americans. The predominant “view” in the U.S. of that news is as a threat. So, the question of fairness is out the window. That way of reporting (via omission) predisposes Americans into a more unfair (or belligerent) stance with the almighty U.S. military.
I think Newsy is indeed unique in trying to have a balanced view – as I said – for your inclusion of other sources. So I wish you guys the best of luck. I don’t think you are “there” yet. When you are, there will be a wide audience around the world waiting. For now, they resort to Aljazeera, China Daily, and other “international” papers or even blogs. Western media’s credibility has been flushed down the toilet outside the West.
At this point, I am not certain Western media (Newsy included) can break out of the mold, because formally, Western journalists are trained to deviate from “中庸.”
“If Confucius is alive today, he would advise the Western media: “中庸””
You will make me a follower of Newsy if you can get Newsy to formally subscribe to this ancient Chinese wisdom of “中庸.” If you read other articles on Hidden Harmonies, you will realize we think a lot of ills in the U.S. today are due to her failing media.
Her next response made me feel a bit prescriptive on my last email, because she’s making me realize this media business is trickier than I thought. We had competing priorities. I feared further spread of “red scare” in the U.S.. She thought less from that perspective.
2010/8/12 Rosa Sow
We agree, western media is pretty terrible and distortion in the media often leads to conflict within the populace. It furthers damaging policy and dangerous and polarizing ideologies,but hey, at least it’s not controlled by the state. That being said, the way our media system is structured paves the way for all kinds of abuses. It is a commercial, rather than public enterprise. That’s actually why I like blogs so much. You often get a more complete view of an issue by seeing information analyzed. That’s the ideal we strive for at Newsy. Objectivity is a myth, ‘fair’ reporting does not now, and will never exist, it is an unattainable ideal.One that we can only grasp for. Most western media is controlled by a handful of conglomerates. We are a start-up that exists outside of that mainstream system. Of China all I can say is that China IS an existential threat to the US in too many ways to detail. Higher rates of energy consumption in China does have negative economic effects on the world energy market, at least in the short-run. If anything western media downplays points of conflict between the US and China. I like your post, I guess the western equivalent to 中庸 would be the Aristotelian concept of the golden mean. I’ll be checking out Hidden Harmonies and I hope you will continue to check out Newsy.
I liked her response. A more complete view indeed require information to be analyzed. I can accept objectivity is indeed a myth. And, certainly, I have no qualms about her views on China, because existing powers always view rising powers as threats.
Fair enough. We indeed see eye to eye on many things. I agree ‘fairness’ is a goal.
Please bear this in mind – Aljazeera stormed onto the world stage on the simple truth: Western media not being trust-worthy of the Iraq war coverage. They made significant inroads too within the U.S.. So, ‘fairness’ on its own has an audience and makes business sense. I hope you guys will aspire to what Daniel Schorr said about media should be “boring.” Xun Zi, another Chinese philosopher, essentially said that the behavior of states on the world stage is determined by their behavior within. (You can think of China as a “world” of many “states” throughout Chinese history until modern times.)
Historically, dominant powers have viewed rising power as threats. But belligerent conduct against the rising power is a sure way to make them enemies. We need to break this cycle. Short of “might makes right”, somebody has to step up to the plate to keep the hawks in all countries in check. That responsibility partly belongs to the media; media should not give ammunition to the hawks.
‘State controlled’ is neutral outside the West. So, for the world to learn the lessons of it (through the European experience), the West must achieve some level of credibility first. China is a threat in the U.S., but the view of that threat has to be tampered by fairness. Otherwise there is no credibility.
She articulates an interesting approach to tackle media bias which I’ll reiterate following her comments.
2010/8/12 Rosa Sow
Sure, people value fair reporting and it would be possible to make money off of it. But the term itself is impossible to define, we all have different ideas of what is ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’ about the way a news story is reported. That’s why Newsy is so useful. Instead of reporting according to an individual bias, we show how different sources are reporting a story. Sure you can never eliminate bias, but we try to maximize users’ ability to make determinations for themselves. It also adds another level of insight, if Fox News covers a story one way, and Al Jazeera covers it in a drastically different way, you can get an idea of the journalistic principles that govern each respective news room.
I completely agree that media are obligated to be a check on power. But they benefit from war, from times of fear and tension. I raise this point to underscore that fairness, objectivity and favorable media practices in general are constrained by so many external factors that there is only so much we can reasonably expect from news outlets. What is more important, I think, is to have an empowered populace who can evaluate the media they are consuming. Public will is the ultimate check on power and we have an obligation as well. We’re obligated to question and challenge dominant institutions and ideas. We are the ones who reward these practices with our consumption, we reward it by paying more attention to scandalous and tawdry stories, for getting wrapped up in the petty politics of non-issues that divide us. The Newsy site and our various apps for mobile devices make it easy to see different perspectives within the span of a few minutes. We let you decide how to interpret the information you are given.
Indeed, Newsy includes clips from Al Jazeera, China’s CCTV, Russian, and other sources. I agree “public will is the ultimate check on power”, and I can understand the strategy to empower the public so they can evaluate the media they are consuming. Remember, according to Xun Zi’s thought, how power is abused within a country ultimately means the same behavior will be carried through to the world at large. In my prior post, “On “Civil Disobedience” and commonality between Mohatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.” I wrote about my conversation with MIT Professor Noam Chomsky where he essentially said, on how our world shifts from “power” based to one that is rooted in “morality”, the solution relies on “actions that the public is willing to take.”
So, having varying perspectives (importantly including foreign ones too) put together is indeed powerful in tackling this bias issue. Of course, perspectives within any foreign country on any given issue is a spectrum and never a singularity. Newsy will have to develop a way to find the “average”, the most “truthful”, and “fair” clip to use. So I appreciate the difficulty in that. As I said at the outset, I was not impressed with the two videos – one on the Japan apology and the other on China report by IEA. Watching them again, I can see an attempt at a broader view. At this point, I can accept them based on difference in prioritizing which perspective is more pressing.
Can Newsy break the mold of Western media bias? It is still too early to tell. I like their strategy though, and I am certainly supportive of their efforts. Newsy also has applications on the App Store (for use on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch) and the Android Marketplace. They are beginning to make a name for themselves.
Sow may be interesting to follow. She can be heard over at Newsy’s blog. Here is her recent entry, “Yahoo and Newsy – Gauging Audience Insights” and a snippet below:
For Newsy, audience insight is important for determining what to cover and the use of different sources in our videos complicates the mix. It adds more traditionally editorial voices to the conversation. Furthermore, ‘linking out’ to the sources used situates the news consumer into the broader conversation on the topic.
The use of search has the effect of including the news consumer in the editorial process – what is ‘newsworthy ‘ is no longer decided by the fourth estate. Users tell us what they want, and we give it to them in easy to consume nuggets. Just the way they like it.
The ‘linking out’ feature is indeed cool, because it also lowers the barrier in the effort to seek more information. I’ve just used it on my HTC Incredible.
Some of you have read Allen‘s article, “Understanding Democracy,” and you will recall his point that understanding public policy is hard work. Most ordinary citizens are too busy with their work and family, and it is only but a small percentage of the population (true anywhere on this planet I suppose) that would invest the time and energy to gain a sufficiently broad perspective to take the right (informed) actions on any issue.
What guards Newsy from giving the consumers what they wish to hear, Fox News style? How do you balance the should and want? Where do we draw the line between government responsibilities and media responsibilities?
That’s where I am at on this media business for now, and there’s more to discuss for sure!