I've been thinking a lot about silos these days. Being that I write about agriculture I guess you'd figure I meant those steel and concrete buildings used to store corn, soybeans, and if Farmer John is unfortunate, mold and any number of mice. But that's not the silos I'm thinking about.
No, I'm thinking about the silos that have created a journalistic us vs. them mentality. The last four years of verbal combat in Washington D.C., and to be honest just about everywhere, has exacerbated a toxic atmosphere akin to the Hatfields and McCoys. It is partisanship on super-steroids.
In one silo -- you might as well call them echo chambers -- lives Fox News, Breitbart News, One America News Network, and to a lesser extent, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to name a few. In the other silo sits MSNBC and to a lesser degree CNN as well as the editorial pages of The Washington Post and L.A. Times to name a few.
Silos. By and large we've become a nation where people choose to get their news from a single silo. And the media – radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, on-line presence, the whole lot – has been complicit in silo construction through poorly sourced, lazy, and often inaccurate stories in the name of “fair balance” that gives unnecessary oxygen to the silo complex that now passes for democracy.
Four years ago presidential aide Kellyanne Conway helped pave the way for acceleration of silo building by telling the public that there were “alternative facts” to the easily debunked POTUS declaration of the record size of his 2017 inaguration. Didn't we all see it coming?
Four years ago it was easy for anyone paying attention to see that our nation was moving to a mindset that for many many people facts and truth no longer mattered. A post-fact world. And our nation's political parties have weaponized “alternative facts” (better known as lies) to divide the nation into silos.
Back in 2016 I suggested journalists needed to combat the post-fact world by being balanced in their reporting. Balance is drilled into would-be-cub-reporters in the nation's journalism schools. Present all sides of a story. Give equal weight to all viewpoints.
But I now suggest reporters need to rethink what balance truly means in a post-truth world. Especially when sources – including some in Big Ag – have a history of putting their lies ahead of the public good.
Balance does not come from serving up to the public equal portions of truth and lies. Rather journalists should strive for accuracy, completeness, and prospective/context to inform the public.
A second five-alarm point of consideration for journalists is the recent cautionary tale over at Fox Business. Somehow, and I'm not making this up, Maria Bartiromo interviewed incoming Smithfield chief executive Dennis Organ. Except it wasn't Organ but rather Direct Action Everywhere activist Matt Johnson posing as Dennis Organ. Organ/Johnson told Bartiromo that:
“The truth is that our industry, in addition to the outbreaks that are happening at our plants our industry poses a serious threat in effectively bringing on the next pandemic, with CDC data showing that three of four infectious diseases come from animals.
That would have been a shocking admission from Smithfield except it was a complete fabrication.
So, you got to ask how in the blue blazes does this happen? Here’s Organ; here’s Johnson. This sort of thing is beyond the pale at a network. Heck, it would beyond the pale for a journalism story trucked inside your weekly shopper along with the Piggly Wiggly coupons.
A third point for journalistic consideration regards lazy, imprecise reporting. When a particular political party is acting like a precocious toddler it is not correct to report the offending party was Congress or Washington. Nor is it appropriate to suggest that the president is under fire when the firebomber is a couple of congressional backbenchers or a disgruntled donor. Identify groups for what they are. Extreme right-wing politicians are not conservatives. Extreme left-wing politicians are not socialists.
Words matter. Accuracy matters. Context matters.