The arbiter of the news?

Robert Niles’ excellent blog posting “A journalist’s guide to the scientific method – and why it’s important” contains good information about the struggle to present factual, accurate information in a news world increasingly dominated by social networking and media bias. For example, people far from the epicenter of the recent Virginia earthquake learned about it on Twitter seconds—even minutes—before they felt the shaking itself. What they didn’t learn is what was going on. Earthquake? Yes? Where, how powerful? Who knows?

Niles argues that journalists must adopt a kind of “scientific method” for reporting news that includes not only testing and verification to make certain journalists have their facts straight, but peer review as well. Peer review, in which the editors of say, the esteemed journal Nature put a scientist’s research through the ringer before they’ll publish it, is sadly missing in journalism today.

At one point in the past, it wasn’t necessary. Respected news sources like the major TV networks were taken at face value, as were newspapers like the Washington Post or Los Angeles Times. However, we live in an age in which the news media is slave first to ratings and sales and then to reporting the news. Fox News castigates the “mainstream” media for telling a slanted story, hoping to draw viewers who distrust what they perceive as news sources that have a political agenda that doesn’t mesh with their own. AM talk radio stations serve as the more conservative counter to public radio broadcasts, which is seen as a left-wing vehicle. Those of us left wanting “the facts” are forced to turn to the BBC, which we hope doesn’t have a stake in American politics or are forced to scratch our heads and wonder whose news is the real news, and whose is distorted and slanted. Throw in “iReports,” social media and amateur journalism, and who knows where the truth lies.

Niles is right when he calls for the news media to serve as an arbiter as what’s true and what’s bunk. Some websites fill this role today: politifact.com, for example, which is run by the St. Petersburg Times. However, those websites can be dismissed as slanted toward one side or another, or at least accused of such, and often an accusation is as good as committing the crime.

New York's General Electric building

So what can be done? A new model that is emerging in the media is the non-profit news source. This model solves two problems: first, it helps to fund what the free market won’t, thanks to Craigslist and other services that have zapped newspaper advertising revenues. Secondly, it can, if done properly, become an impartial news source. To achieve this, a non-profit news source should a) not accept any donations over a certain level (maybe $5,000) and, b) publish an on-going list of its donors so that readers can see who funds the news source and who presumably might be biasing it with their dollars.

By limiting donations and ensuring transparency, these news sources can reduce the impact of big corporations, PACS and lobbyists, which all play a huge role in decision-making in this country today. It puts the onus of funding the news source on “we the people”, and not on GE (parent company of NBC), NewsCorp (Fox), Disney (ABC), Gannett, McClatchy, Tribune or anyone else. Maybe we can’t trust the corporations—but if we can’t trust ourselves to fund truly “fair and balanced” news sources with millions of small donations from the people themselves, then who can we trust?

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