The Fourth Estate

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Can journalists contradict themselves, and still provide insight? Or should they always choose a side, and remain consistent with that choice for the length of their careers? In my opinion, these  questions form the core ethical controversy of the media today, whether in print or television.

Anyone who has ever had the fortunate opportunity to experience Sean Hannity on America’s Fox News knows that opinion and bias will leak into news reporting as surely as tea leaves color hot water.

Bias in news is unavoidable. Opinion is a human trait, and an abundant supply of news is a human desire. By necessity, the two must always interbreed. But the trick is to balance bias in a way that does not ostracise the majority of one’s viewers or readers. Obtaining that balance is synonymous with supplying quality news.

Sean Hannity, Maureen Dowd, and Katie Couric are perfect examples of this. These journalists offer specifically angled and easily identifiable perspectives on current events, while remaining popular with a majority of their readers or viewers.

But I consider these individuals to be failures in journalist ethics. They spin stories without consideration of the opposition. They are limited by a single, unwavering, perspective.

In his revolutionary Transcendentalist poem “Song of Myself”, Walt Whitman asked, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself / (I am large, I contain multitudes)”.

Containing multitudes, or being open to expressing multiple perspectives, is a lot to ask of a journalist. But I ask it of journalists, nonetheless. I cannot expect my news to be unfiltered by opinion. I can expect my news to be filtered fairly, however. And, in fact, I do. I’d much prefer my news to contain multitudes of different opinions, as opposed to a single narrow view.

A good journalist doesn’t take one side. He or she takes all sides, and expresses them with equal weight. I realize there are no examples of this to present you with. It’s an ideal that, like all ideals, is impossible. But I sincerely believe that this balance is still worth striving for.

Walt Whitman printed the first edition of Leaves of Grass, the poetry collection that contained “Song of Myself”, out of his own pocket, and anonymously. He believed he was as all but the new zeitgeist of America: he declared himself the messianic bard a fledgling country had been waiting for. Perhaps this level of self confidence sounds familiar to you.

I warn you to be wary of such confidence. Pay attention to what angle of a story you’re getting. And even more importantly, try to understand all of the angles you aren’t being given.

I’ll leave you with an invitation to a thought. Is contradiction always a negative force, or rather an attempt at covering every side of an issue?

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