Morality of Media Misrepresentation in Investigative Reporting Essay
There is no denying the fact that investigative media strongly influence public perspectives on various matters. This is due to a number of reasons.
First, investigative reporting provides information previously not in the public sphere. This means that most people learned about the facts and events for the first time or the investigative report confirmed developing doubts or answered hanging questions. This is due to the nature of investigative reporting, as covert and pro-active journalism, since the focus is on dealings kept from public scrutiny (Forbes 1).
Second, investigative reporting fosters the impression of evidence-based reporting since investigative reports support statements with circumstantial or prima facie facts (Forbes 4). An implication is that investigative reports influence the public because of the impression that the facts stated come from facts backed by evidence. This finds support in the application of scientific processes in data collection since investigative reporters do not just present a scoop without factual evidence (Forbes 1).
Third, investigative reporting carries the air of public trust by building public impression of the general role of the media in supporting the exercise of the public’s right to information and public welfare (Forbes 3). As such, investigative reports influence the public through the development of the value of facts as true, factual and reliable. Indirectly, these sources of value draw people to rely on investigative reports.
However, public debate emerged challenging these characteristics of investigative reporting covering the issues of bias, skepticism, media manipulation, privacy intrusion, and public impact. This issues calls for the renewal of the importance of commitment to the ethical rights and duties of media people involved in investigative reporting. (Kieran x) The paper considers the specific issue of media misrepresentation by looking at the forms or areas of media misrepresentation and discussing the morality of this issue in the context of investigative reporting to derive the conclusion that media misrepresentation is moral only when committed to serves public interest.
Forms of Media Misrepresentation in Investigative Reporting
A growing perspective is that media misrepresentation occurs more frequently in investigative reporting than most people realize. Media misrepresentation happens in the political sphere especially during the campaign period, the legal sphere especially in sensational cases, economic sphere particularly in areas of public interest, socio-cultural and environmental spheres such as the reporting on the nature and extent of public risks.
Investigative reporting thrived in democratic systems because of the freedom of information justified by public interest. Former president Clinton had to step down from office with a besmirched reputation after reports of his sexual affair with a White House staff leaked to the public. Reports not only mentioned the extra-marital affair but also contained the admission of Lewinsky of the affair together with a dress stained with Clinton’s semen. No conclusive DNA test was made to match the connection between Lewinsky, the dress stained with semen, and Clinton but the report was enough to rock the presidency. Although Clinton denied these allegations, the public impact was so great to give the Republican Party the upper hand. However, in the upcoming presidential elections, investigative reports are mounting as information upon information, mostly negative, killed the chances of most of the candidates to achieve their goal of representing the party. Quite a number of republican senators hoping to represent the party in the presidential elections have been discredit due to reports of solicitation of sex, some even involving minors, supported by prima facie evidence of credit card accounts, correspondence, witness testimonies, and even confessions. Reports have influenced public opinion through votes in the primaries. Again, the public received most of these reports as facts but there could be media misrepresentation in these cases, especially since motives abound in dropping other party representatives to the presidential elections or likely strong opposition in the presidential race.
In the legal sphere, investigative reporting details and simplifies legal aspects to relate the technical aspects of law with the common or day-to-day lives of people (Nobles and Schiff 223). Through this process media misrepresentation can occur. In the case of Sally Clark, a solicitor convicted of killing her two children. Her defense was sudden infant death syndrome since autopsy has not identified an alternative and convincing cause of death. There was circumstantial evidence of her involvement because of the proximity of her relationship to the victims and the lack of other suspects especially because of the failure to identify the cause of death. A comparison of investigative reports on her case and the court records shows a difference in the interpretation and presentation of facts. Reports of the media leaned towards the guilt of Clark by presenting all prima facie evidence linking her to the double murder. The climax was the conviction of Clark at the lower court followed by an unsuccessful appeal.
However, lesser reports showed that she successfully reversed her conviction during a second appeal based on court records. (Nobles and Schiff 228-242) Reports of her conviction supported by circumstantial evidence lingered in the public mind and even if Sally Clarke received exoneration from the charges, her conviction would define public perspective.
In economics, media serves as source of information to influence consumer decision-making that in turn affect the economy in terms of the demand and supply mechanics. Often, government institutions and private advocates influence these decisions through the provision of information to the media (Baron 339-340). In the Paraguay, Peru, Nigeria and Philippines, media reports a looming food shortage supported by the decrease in the supply of stable food in the public markets, continues rise in prices, and talks of food importation and aid. Reports also portray panic buying with people queuing for food because of the looming food shortage. However, the governments of these countries deny claims of impending food shortage since policy reforms and contingency plans are ongoing. Consumers in these countries report high inflation rates as the problem but not necessarily food shortage. These reports and the claims of governments and accounts of consumers have inconsistencies that could amount to media misrepresentation.
In the socio-cultural sphere including health care, the media serves as cues for the public on matters of health such as the leading causes of death as a means of deciding on preventive measures. However, a consideration of investigative reports and actual statistics on the leading of causes of death in the United States shows a disparity. Reports underrepresented deaths from tobacco-related diseases, cerebrovascular illnesses, and heart disease that are the leading causes of deaths in the United States while the media overrepresented drug use, motor vehicle accidents, and homicide by focusing reports on these causes of death. (Frost, Frank and Maibach 842-843). The disparities between the reported causes of death that reach the public are misleading because these do not represent reality. In the case of poverty and homelessness, there are also disparities between media reports and statistical information. During the 1980s and 1990s, reports showed that there around two to three million homeless people walking the streets at night but scientific research that only around two hundred to three hundred thousand people do not have homes. (Hewitt 431) This constitutes misrepresentation since it magnifies a risk to the public view. Even if poverty and homelessness are strong public concerns, the misrepresentation could have unwanted effects.
These shows in many areas, media misrepresentation could occur. Although the effect often leans towards the negative, this could have varying effects, both positive and negative, on individuals as well as institutions. Political figures can achieve positive or negative public ratings through media misrepresentation although the positive effect comes indirect since the demise of one political figure usually involves the rise of the popularity of another. At the least, the public learns about the character of candidates to support decision-making during the actual elections. Exaggerated reports on the causes of death and homelessness are misleading but these could also influence policymaking and reforms.
Misrepresentation of court proceeding could cause conviction through the media but media coverage could also bring criminals to justice by uncovering evidence and witnesses that learn about the arrest and trial.
Sensationalized reports on economic and social issues could cause panic and disturbance but these could also raise public awareness and action.
This implies that media misrepresentation is not an absolute wrong because of a wide grey area on context-based mix of positive and negative effects.
Morality of Media Misrepresentation in Investigative Reporting
Media misrepresentation in investigative reporting becomes a moral issue because of the responsibility of the media to the public. Media constitutes a public service and a responsibility to ensure public good. However, the media also stands for truth and facts so that investigative reports carry the expectation that information and interpretations provided to the public are true, reliable and supported by circumstantial evidence, at the least, and prima facie evidence or evidence at the most. Achieving a balance of both comprise a complicated and difficult process. However, decades of experience of investigative reports shows that the ultimate judge of whether a particular misrepresentation is right or wrong is its overall effect to the public. This means that media misrepresentation is unacceptable and wrong when it does not serve the public good or that the public benefit outweighs the adverse effects or costs. In this way, the media serves public service and beneficial outcomes support the truth and factuality of the reports.
Media could misrepresent situations by understating or overstating reports (Campbell 206). Both are not absolute rights or wrongs. Again, public benefit serves as the measure of the morality of media misrepresentation.
On one hand, an understatement of public risks can prevent widespread panic that would worsen the likelihood of the risk from escalating. In the case of the leading causes of death, the focus on motor vehicle and homicide with lower incidence than deaths caused by heart diseases with greater incidence serves a public warning since accidents happen in an instant causing the deaths of many people. While both are avoidable and preventable, deaths from vehicular accidents involves greater individual responsibility for public safety while heart disease leans more towards individual responsibility to oneself. Of course, arguments counter arguments can always say that car mishaps, car related deaths, and homicide add more to ratings that’s why media pick up on these causes of death more than the actual more frequent causes of deaths.
On the other hand, the overstatement of issues and situations could also serve the public good. In the case of homelessness, reporting a greater number of homeless people, three hundred times more than the scientific studies, by sourcing data from advocate organizations could serve the public good. Even in a developed country as the United States, poverty remains a significant problem expressed through higher incidence of property crimes and divisiveness through the segmentation of geographic areas according to income class and socio-economic status. However, poverty and homelessness receive little attention from Capitol Hill and other concerned agencies because of focus on other priorities such as military budget to support the war on terrorism. Exaggerating reports could pressure policy reforms and budget allocation addressing poverty and homelessness that effects on property crimes and divisiveness within the American society. In the area of politics, exaggerations leaning more towards apocalyptic and conspiratorial investigative reports have significantly contributed to the decline in public confidence towards the government institutions (Moy and Pfau xi). This could decrease the effectiveness of public institutions in gaining public support for valid policies.
Media misrepresentation expresses media bias and issues in the process of gathering information (Hewitt 431). Bias is not absolute right or wrong but it has implications on the media industry and the public with public good enabling the assessment of the morality of bias.
On one hand, bias does not serve public interest. Bias occurs in media organizations, because of its effect on the demand for news and competitiveness of news channels (Baron 2006). However, a public perception of biased news could cause lesser demand for news at least from a network perceived as biased relative to greater demand for unbiased reporting. Public perception of bias leads to lesser interest over information given by the media and since the media, serves as the most popular source of information people become uninformed or unaware.
On the other hand, bias could also serve public interest. Investigative reporting on corruption that targets a specific political figure is biased since it largely favors accountability to the public. However, reports could also serve public good by exposing misappropriation of public funds, immoral and illegal actions by government representatives, and other forms of corruption that the people deserve to know since the government is by the people and for the people.
Media misrepresentation is in itself a risk because of the uncertainty in its ramifications especially on public perception and benefits because the thrust of investigating reporting is to cover substantiated news on matters outside of the public sphere. As such, the acceptability of media misrepresentation depends on the manner that the public takes the investigative report but reports that serve the public interest are likely to gain positive public acquiescence. However, as a risk, this can be addressed by practicing public responsibility in order to justify the exaggeration or downplaying of information presented to the public. Thus, media misrepresentation as a moral issue goes beyond mere consideration of right and wrong and extends towards the issue of public safety and welfare since ensuring these forms part of the role of the media in a democratic society.
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