11 July 2008

Good News, News Cocoons and Truly Bad News

A friend sent us a news release the other day from Vienna from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It really caught our attention. Read it and you’ll see why:

VIENNA, 8 July 2008 - The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklos Haraszti, asked Romanian President Traian Basescu today to veto a proposed amendment to the broadcasting law that would oblige television and radio stations to ensure that half their news coverage consists of "positive news".

"Prescribing, or even defining good versus bad news is a severe political intrusion into editorial freedom, and is fully out of touch with the rights of the audiences as well," said Haraszti.

"I do not see how ordering editors to carry 50 % good news could 'help improve the general climate and give people a balanced view of everyday life', as argued by the sponsors of the amendment," he added. "It is the diversity of unrestricted news reporting that makes a well-informed public, and this rule would only diminish such pluralism."

Naturally we share the view that this is a bad idea. And we appreciate even more the fact that the US Constitution (First Amendment) specifically bars any legislative action that would impinge on freedom of the press:

“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Today we learned from the OSCE that the Constitutional Court of Romania has ruled the “good news” draft is unconstitutional. That is good news.

As journalists, we are familiar with the impulse that often drives political figures and ordinary citizens to complain that the news is “too negative” or “never tells us anything good about anything.”

We are also aware that many people, some of them sour on what they see as too much bad news, are moving into what one American professor, Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago, writing in Neiman Reports, characterizes as “information cocoons” --- where they only see exactly what they want to see and where, as Sunstein writes, “people can reinforce their own convictions.”

This, too, we find troubling. And Professor Sunstein explains why:

“A central consequence of this kind of self-sorting is what might be called “enclave extremism.” This term refers to the fact that when people end up in enclaves of like-minded people, they usually move toward a more extreme point in the direction to which the group’s members were originally inclined. Enclave extremism is a special case of the broader phenomenon of group polarization, which has been found in more than a dozen nations. As group polarization occurs, misconceptions and falsehoods can spread like wildfire.”

We at VOA news have always reported the news, good and bad. We don’t deal in rumor, gossip or speculation. Nor do we play to only certain points of view. We have a responsibility to you, the audience, to present news that is accurate, objective and comprehensive.

And we believe you, the audience, have a responsibility to know what is happening in your world, good and bad. We believe it is the only way responsible decisions can be made.

Here is how Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel of the US-based Project for Excellence in Journalism put it in their book, “The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect”:

“Journalism provides something unique to a culture -- independent, reliable, accurate, and comprehensive information that citizens require to be free. A journalism that is asked to provide something other than that subverts democratic culture… The issue isn't just the loss of journalism. At stake is whether, as citizens, we have access to independent information that makes it possible for us to take part in governing ourselves.”

If you can’t get that kind of information, we think that is truly bad news.

1 comment:

newsjunkie said...

The phenomenon of "news cacoons" is an interesting - perhaps worrying -- trend in news consumption. It used to be the norm that an experienced editor could pull together a range of news to form a whole program (radio, TV) or news spread (newspaper, magazine) with a variety of stories and perspectives. Now younger generations are more apt to "tailor" the information they subscribe to using "new media" -- Facebook pages with RSS feeds, Podcasts, and Google-searched stories. Sometimes this includes a balance of news, sometimes only the latest entertainment post or weather report. It will be interesting to see what influence this has on public perceptions and the public's response to news events in the future...