Thursday, August 28, 2008

On Truth Telling

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Thanks to the Women’s Media Center, I’ve been thinking a lot about what that phrase means, about the difference between information, opinion and bias.

Information means facts. Like ‘em or not, facts express reality. They need to be accurate and they need to be thorough.

I can say, Denise Smith lost her job because she was absent too many times. That’s a fact -- but it doesn’t tell me the whole story. What was too many times and why was she absent? Turns out she had a child with asthma and her employer had no paid sick days. Each of the three times Denise missed work, even though she followed the guidelines for calling in, she was given an “absence point.” Three points and you’re out.

You may think that’s reasonable – that’s an opinion. I may disagree. But we both have to be operating from the same set of facts. Just knowing Denise Smith didn’t show up for work may cause you to believe she was lazy. That’s a bias based on too little information.

If someone tells you Denise Smith quit her job, that’s misinformation. And if they tell you she had a bad work ethic, that’s disinformation. Both feed bias.

The media’s job is to dig deep, make sure we the people have all the facts. As the WMC video “Sexism Sells and We’re Not Buying It” reminds us, too often the media falls short – in no small part because of the lack of diversity both among those who tell the story and those who decide what the stories should be.

I've been in Denver at the Democratic Convention, promoting an agenda that values families at work -- see Folks will be distributing this information at the RNC as well.) I attended the panel called “Soundbites and Solutions: Bias, Punditry and the Press in the 2008 Elections.” The Women’s Media Center, in conjunction with the Maynard Institute and the White House Project, gave us a feast of experts to probe the question of what constitutes bias in the media and what to do about it.

Richard Prince, who chairs the Diversity Committee of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, described being in a room full of reporters and publishers when John McCain declared that the United States wasn’t founded on notions of class or race or ethnicity, but rather on ideas. Everyone but Prince nodded. So much for the facts – at our founding, only white male property owners were allowed to vote; even free Blacks were considered three-fifths of a person.

“There was something wrong with who these people are and what they know about the U.S.,” Prince said. No news stories the next day mentioned McCain’s comment. Had those in the room looked and lived more like the rest of us, they wouldn’t just have had a different opinion – they would have known and told the truth.

Patricia Williams, columnist for the Nation, talked about the difference between opinion and bias. “I hear people say, ‘In my opinion, Barack Obama is a Muslim or terrorist.’ That’s not just an opinion – it’s disinformation.” Williams also talked about the institutional bias of the consolidation of media ownership. Bias becomes embedded when the media operates entirely for commercial rather than public interest. “Fiction becomes fact,” Williams said, “because people see it repeated.”

A powerful example of the consequences of this phenomenon came from Maria Teresa Peterson of Voto Latino. She described the father of three in Shenandoah, PA who was beaten to death because he was an immigrant. “The media shapes perceptions,” she said, “and gives permission for certain acts.” Noting that 61 percent of all hate crimes over the last two years were against Latinos, Peterson pointed to the role of Lou Dobbs and others who have been allowed to shape the negative perceptions of immigrants that leads to such violence.

Carol Jenkins reminded us that the Women’s Media Center doesn’t just describe the problem, they’ve also laid out solutions – changes the media needs to make and also changes we can make as consumers of media in order to remove sexism and every other form of bias. “Use your purse,” she said. “Use your voice.”

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