Stop Blaming the Media!

By Richard Landau

Feb 27 2015

Articles, Op-Ed




I hear it everywhere: “The media lie about us.”  “The media don’t tell our story.”  “We are invisible to the media.” 

I attend conferences and hear speakers blame the media for racism, hatred, and demonizing certain identifiable groups. I hear nominally intelligent people repeat the falsehood that the media are owned, dominated and influenced by one hyper-influential community.

Let’s clear this up. 

I’ve made my career in the various media: print, radio, TV, social. I’ve seen reporters and editors make some boneheaded mistakes. In fact, I used to produce and host a weekly TV program that talked about media errors.

Yet, I have to say, that here in Canada, we are fairly well served by our media. There is no “state” medium. No mouthpiece for the government, praising the deeds of a glorious leader.  No medium is given to hectoring any one identifiable community.

If we believe it is the job of the media to draw conclusions about racism, we are wrong.

Recently, a white man was arrested for shooting to death three young Muslims in North Carolina. The shooter may have taken up arms because of a parking dispute – or, as many speculate, it may have been a dispute predicated, at least partially, on the shooter’s possible dislike of Muslims. At the moment, we frankly don’t know for sure. For the most part, the U.S. reporting has been careful to make that point, all the while identifying the three young victims as Muslims. Given that the two slain young women wore hijab, and may have died for that reason, the media have continually mentioned their faith. Muslims are not protesting. The media got it right.

Discrepancies in Media Bias

However, some of my colleagues, among them Muslims, and the nattering voices of social media jumped immediately to the conclusion that the media were biased in not instantaneously identifying this as a hate crime and in being slow-footed with their reporting. If we believe it is the job of the media to draw conclusions about racism, we are wrong. The reporter’s job is to tell the story. Absent conclusive evidence, reporters did not say that the alleged killer was Islamophobic.  

But I have to point out that deliberative and well considered reporting works both ways. If we media were permitted to conclude the UNC killer was a Muslim hater, then the Parliament Hill shooter, who killed Cpl Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa, should have been immediately identified by the media as an “Islamic terrorist.” They didn’t do that. The man may have claimed he was inspired by his (faulty) understanding of Islam, but the Canadian reporting more readily identified him as a deranged – even psychotic – “lone wolf,” more likely influenced by drugs. The coverage got it right.

There’s also the matter of simple reasoning that seems to be lacking these days. If all terrorists are, say, men of the Purple religion – and the media simply report that fact – it doesn’t mean they hold a bias.  Logic 101: just because all the terrorists are Purple men, doesn’t mean all Purple believers are terrorists. It doesn’t mean all men are terrorists, either. It’s a simple matter of reason.

How the Media Respond to Claims of Bias

I asked Libby Stephens, former Toronto Star religion page editor, how she responds when she hears people claiming media bias.

“I learned to ask: Which media? Is the alleged offending paper/TV station local or was it a national or international story on a wire service? Can you give me an example? Did you let the media outlet know you were displeased by its coverage? If so, what was its response? Have you asked for a meeting with the editor or public editor? Not surprisingly, this shuts down most complaints.”

Now, lest you think that I hold all media absolutely blameless; let me argue from the other side for a moment. I believe the media – when they are conveying news, not opinion – should be like a mirror.  Neither concave, nor convex – just a flat and true representation of the facts. Not all media do that well – especially when we have corporate and other interests that can tend to shape coverage from the Left and from the Right.

Blurring Lines Between News and Opinion 

In the age of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart – the boundaries between reporting and editorializing has grown thinner. Their programs were NOT news programs. If a newspaper or broadcast organization doesn’t delineate between opinion and news, naturally there will be the perception of overall bias.  

If editors can tell a story that they know will generate hundreds of clicks or a higher return, that will compel them. The downside of that scenario is that sometimes the lowest common denominator will dictate: naked Kim Kardashian will vastly outdraw a brilliant essay about ISIS…

I also wish the media (especially the U.S. media) would separate news from sports and entertainment.  They cover elections as if they are sporting events. They treat political leaders and people in the news like entertainment celebrities. Maybe that’s because the gulf between the two has narrowed in the U.S. where Clint Eastwood and Oprah and Al Franken and Harv Weinstein are all part of the political equation.

Then there’s the matter of the influence of money. You may have heard the expression “if it bleeds, it leads.” We don’t tell a lot of stories about the young person who came out of poverty and destitution and is today graduating with her Ph.D. We simply can’t… because you wouldn’t read or watch wall-to-wall good news. Our business case would be dead. 

After all, media is big business, traditionally driven by viewership/readership and the resulting revenue. Today, it is increasingly click-and-view-driven – and the economic/revenue-generation models are realigning. If editors can tell a story that they know will generate hundreds of clicks or a higher return, that will compel them. The downside of that scenario is that sometimes the lowest common denominator will dictate: naked Kim Kardashian will vastly outdraw a brilliant essay about ISIS or Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian ambitions or the brilliant success of a Canadian lab scientist of Pakistani origin.

In the media welter, there are some proactive steps you can take to heighten your community’s media profile. Tell your own stories by starting your own website. Contact the mainstream media when you have a story you think others might want to hear (I know New Canadian Media is always listening). Encourage your children to go into journalism. Teach yourself and others media literacy so that you can separate fact from opinion. Wherever possible, make sure that whoever lays claim to speaking for your community is articulate and credible. 

Oh, and stop blaming the media.

Richard M. Landau has been responsible for adjudicating disputes and enforcing a television network code of ethics in a religious broadcasting setting since 1992. He is a graduate of Carleton University and the University of Ottawa. A leader in interfaith dialogue, Landau has consulted with the UK Home Office, and the White House Office of Community- and Faith-Based Initiatives.  He works closely with leadership in all of the major world religions. He is author of “What the World Needs to Know about Interfaith Dialogue”.

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