Diagnosis for Democracy
Insights into the State of Our Union
A Blog by Rob Tenery, MD


September 9, 2011: Whatever Happened to the 'Whole' Story?

By Rob Tenery, MD on September 9, 2011

Growing up, our family kept abreast of the news through our local newspaper. Although most of the space was devoted to the events around our small community, news from around the state and beyond was reported too.  There were instances when the reporter got the facts wrong, but when brought to the paper’s attention, they quickly posted a ‘correction’ in the next issue. Radio had also played an important part of my parents’ lives in the early part of the twentieth century, especially with news about the war, and then television news invaded our home in the 1950s.

Good news or bad, we derived comfort from knowing what was happening around us. Maybe, I was naive during my youth, but I never doubted the veracity of the newspaper reporters or the television commentators. Never did I feel they intentionally tried to mislead me.

We may never know when what is now labeled media bias started. The first I recall was during World War II when English-speaking, female, Japanese broadcasters, labeled Tokyo Rose, began putting out propaganda over the airwaves in an attempt to demoralize our troops. (1) Then there was the ‘shut-the-eyes’ approach by the media to the philandering ways of our then President John F. Kennedy. Instead of just reporting the facts, the media had begun to ‘filter’ the news as they saw it, but they had also begun to put their ‘interpretation’ into it as well.

Halfway through the first section of the only large circulation Dallas newspaper on a recent Sunday, I realized that instead of reporting what was happening on the political scene, the editors of the newspaper had decided what side of the story they wanted me to know. If a story involved an elected official, the paper put their slant on it. The Dallas paper is not alone. Media bias is epidemic in this country. The public’s trust in the media is at an all time low and a contributing factor as to why many of the country’s newspapers continue to lose readership.

Rarely is the bias expressed in the title. That would be too obvious. The editors use more subtle techniques, such as location and length of the articles on the pages. Merchandising frequently incorporates subliminal approaches such as putting the items they are most eager to sell at eye level and in high traffic areas.

Source choice is another technique to add credibility. Look long enough and any eager reporter can come up with someone or some fact that will support their premise. Even worse is quoting a source without pointing out the identity with statements such as ‘some experts say’ or ‘what one business leader called.’ These opinions could be fabrications as far as the readers know.

The papers frequently include positive statements by or about individuals whose political party they support, while reserving the negative statements for those who oppose the paper’s position. Negative statements, even if the reader agrees, tend to be a turn off, especially by those who don’t have a firm position already. Even though a reporter might attempt to put up a veil of balance through retort, the juxtaposition of a positive comment always wields the upper hand over a negative one.

The Weekly Standard makes no excuses that it is a forum for the conservative point-of-view. The Huffington Post does the same from the liberal perspective. There is very little pretence by either. Going in, the readers know upfront the stories in these periodicals are written with a bias.

My problem is with most of the other newspapers that claim objectivity, but slant their stories to fit their own points-of-view---the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and especially our city’s Dallas Morning News to list several. Their bias is obvious to the already informed reader. However, those who are not as observant often formulate their opinions based on the newspaper’s presentation of a particular story.

The major television networks are not much better. Using the excuse of time constraint, they often only televise stories that support their positions. CBS, ABC and NBC’s purported objectivity is a farce. At least the viewers know the bias on CNBC and the majority of the time on the Fox network.

So, how does this affect medicine? Because free discourse by the medical community is often muffled unless it fits the media’s point-of-view. Often physicians are portrayed collectively as a special interest group for their own self-interests, rather than patient advocates. Although patients see their own doctors as heroes, to the far right, physician groups are viewed as in opposition to ‘big business,’ such as the insurance companies and hospital corporations. To the far left, physicians’ interests are viewed as in opposition to federal funding systems that insure equal care for all, as in ‘single payer’ models. Unlike the labor unions, physician groups collectively have no single party allegiance.

The recent enactment of the PPACA legislation is a prime example of the physicians’ voices either being excluded from the public debate or being used by a particular party to further their own agenda. The media touted the American Medical Association’s support for the President’s proposed legislation because it fit the media’s agenda. My own state medical association and many other physician organizations across the country opposed the AMA’s position.

Due to significantly less media exposure of the opposing voices in the medical community, the public and our Congress were influenced by an organization that counts less than 20% of physicians as members.

"If you don't read the newspaper you are uninformed, if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed."                                                                 Mark Twain

---------------------------------------------------------------------------REFERENCES:

1.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokyo_Rose




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