The foreign press corps’ dangerous blind spot
Professional scrutiny can be uncomfortable, especially for journalists who make it their business to give it. While a recent Knesset subcommittee hearing was a questionable way for Israel to make its concerns about biased coverage known to the Foreign Press Association, the media corps are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Questions about media integrity, agenda, and standards remain.
And we deserve answers without diversion simply because Israel approached the concerns from the level of state, in an unproductive manner.
On Tuesday evening, I was invited to contribute to this very conversation as head of HonestReporting, the leading media monitoring organization focused on bias as it impacts Israel news coverage. International Salon Tel Aviv – a prestigious forum bringing young professionals up close with political, industry and cultural leadership hosted the debate. I was privileged to share a stage with Lt. Col. Peter Lerner of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit and Charlotte Hallé , Editor in Chief of Haaretz’s English edition. Our conversation was considered, cordial, and yes, occasionally spirited.
What struck me most was the humility of those present to recognize that we all experience obstacles to objectivity in a wide variety of ways. And it got me wondering how the head of the Foreign Press Association, Luke Baker, who came up in conversation, could be so obtuse in his testimony at the Knesset.
Baker, who is also the Jerusalem bureau chief for Reuters, claimed that Israeli government scrutiny was not necessary, that mistakes were few and far between, and that with groups like HonestReporting to monitor their work, there was plenty of supervision in place.
Yet days later, Baker downgraded the value of the media-monitoring community when he told Globes:
The claims of bias in reporting are annoying. If there are mistakes, they are corrected as soon as possible. I reject the claim of lack of balance.
The confidence that comes from being a veteran reporter in the region (Baker is enjoying his second tour of duty here) can too easily give way to arrogance, and overconfidence. And that’s a shame, because the overconfidence Baker demonstrates is also setting him up for professional failure.
Let me point it out via a source Baker might respect – The Guardian – which interviewed Daniel Kahneman, the esteemed Behavioral Economist and Nobel Laureate. Kahneman made clear that blindness to one’s own blindness is a recipe for disaster. Both Baker and his colleagues’ limited familiarity with the region, understanding of Hebrew or Arabic, access, and a host of other barriers to understanding, are the very reasons journalists should be careful against overconfidence.
It would seem from Baker’s view that so long as corrections are made, the damage is undone.
Let’s be real about that, knowing that first impressions count, and that having an insurance policy is no excuse for careless professional conduct. Does our doctor’s insurance policy give us peace of mind as we’re wheeled into the operating room?
Further, overconfidence by news makers and their willing sources and subjects must always be a concern when interpreting an experience into a report. Consider the risks of failing to do so as described by David Dunning (yes, as in the Dunning-Kruger effect):
In many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.
Neither Baker, his colleagues, their news subjects or network infrastructures are beyond the shortcomings described. Only by being on the lookout for overconfidence can we hope to avoid bias. But Baker’s testimony, and subsequent social media tone doesn’t seem to take claims of bias too seriously. The FPA is too confident in its ability to self-police. That’s dangerous for journalists, their audiences, and the people being covered.
And so in my comments at this week’s International Salon Tel Aviv debate on media bias, I focused on the news consumers. A demand for quality assurance means we scrutinize the workflow and standards behind the media reports that shape our world view. To suggest that scrutiny is unwarranted should trigger alarm bells for all of us dependent on the integrity of the news industry.
Humility and recognition of shortcomings within the news making industry is a prerequisite. We’ve not found the necessary attitude among those playing fast and loose with the freedoms and access they enjoy as shapers of news here in Israel. We’ll continue scrutinizing and exposing the shortcomings that those too confident in their skills refuse to see.
The first step, as I told the audience, is to empower ourselves with the tools to improve our own level of news literacy that we can follow coverage with a more critical eye. To that end, my organization has produced Red Lines: HonestReporting’s 8 Categories of Media Bias.
By elevating consumer awareness of quality and production failings within the news industry, my hope is that news makers will be more cautious, more humble and more self-aware of the traps and biases that can and do infect their work.