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Media must present the message fairly

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

We in the media are guilty of many things. We nudge the slant of the news from time to time and, increasingly, we give credibility to some who don't deserve the recognition. An old college journalism professor of mine once gave the following illustration. He said, by way of example, you contact a politician and ask their opinion on a topic. The politician decides against giving a direct answer. So do you say that politician "refused" to answer or "declined" to answer. One word is much stronger than the other and gives a negative impression.

So goes the world of journalism.

I mention this because I began reading a story last week about a "protest" outside of Sen. Jim Talent's office in support of raising the minimum wage in Missouri. One protester - a single mother who works for minimum wage at a daycare center - wondered why Talent was hosting a fundraiser with $1,000 invitations when workers were making such low wages.

But down a bit deeper in the story I discovered that the "protest" involved three people. Three people! And yet they generated a full-blown article from the Associated Press. Maybe I should blame the wire service but then again, maybe they were told the "protest" would be a bit larger. In fact, a protest was planned later in the evening during the fundraiser and I assume more people were present.

Here's my point. Regardless of Talent's position on minimum wage or stem cell research or the war in Iraq, we in the media give attention sometimes when none is deserved. Would the wire service have sent a reporter to cover the "protest" had but one person appeared? And if so, then that's a sad state of the media industry in this country.

Once upon a time, protesters appeared at my office to dispute some story I had written. It was back in the Wayne Cryts days, if you'll recall. So there they stood, three gentlemen in overalls and one lone tractor. But television cameras were invited and so they appeared. It was almost humorous to watch the cameraman try to angle his equipment so it appeared that perhaps more than three lonely souls had come to show their displeasure. I felt like asking some of my staff at the time to stand with the farmers to help avoid embarrassment.

The media is as critical a component in our society as any other single entity. I truly believe that. But the media also has a heavy burden and responsibility for fairness and accuracy and balance. I know that sounds like Fox News but it really is true.

When an article appears on a national wire service that makes it appear a protest is actually much more than it actually is, then fairness, accuracy and balance go by the wayside. In this one single case, that's exactly what happened.



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Michael Jensen
Michael Jensen