Why its hard to trust the media

I've never been a part of a national news story.  I can only hope that I never will be.  After hearing about the 10 Americans arrested in Haiti I started following the story online.  You see, one of those 10 is a guy I know through ministry here in Idaho.  Before they left he expressed a strong desire and calling from God to take action.  His heart was moved with compassion at what he saw on the news and knew that he had to do something to help.

I couldn't have been more surprised when I read headlines like these:

Haiti earthquake: One third of Haiti orphans 'kidnapped' by
American church ...

US citizens face Haiti kidnapping charges

Haiti could send US 'child-traffickers' home for trial

Baptist "Human Trafficking" Update: Some Haitian Children Weren't
Orphans

Sense of superiority drove church to 'help' Haitian children

If you have the time, you can go read those articles from early on in the situation, but just by the headlines you can tell that the journalists were salivating over the sensationalism of their words.  They seemed to relish the idea of more religious fanatics doing crazy things with children.  This would give them a great chance to put on a somber tone and just a hint of righteous indignation.  This would give them a chance to use the words "baptist" and "missionary" in the same sentence with "human trafficking" and "kidnapping" and "sex-trade".

If you read the stories you will see that the journalist were very quick to put the ugliest possibilities forward in their stories first, before relating the known facts.  I saw very few reports that I felt were unbiased against the volunteers.  I saw many, many opinion pieces condemning the group seemingly without considering that there might be another side to the story.  With each day, however, the stories seemed to weaken.  Reporters seemed to reluctantly report that the parents voluntarily sent their children away, but only after passing on the rumor (apparently untrue) that the group had gone door-to-door asking if there were any children available for trafficking.  Then it has come out in the last couple of days, almost as an unrelated afterthought, that the parents who sent their kids away won't know what to do with their kids once they are returned to them.

The tone of today's news has mellowed drastically.

Haiti may release most U.S. church members


Suddenly, with a air of fairness, these "missionary kidnappers" or "baptist human traffickers" are simply "U.S. Church members" who were trying to leave the country without the proper documents. 

Now I realize that someone along the line probably knew they were skirting the law and they need to give answers.  I understand that this is a story that needs to be investigated and reported.  But, what I don't understand is how so many people felt justified in coming to a snap judgment and demonizing this group from the very beginning.  They are already being blamed for ruining the whole world-wide adoption movement.  Is that really true?  Only time will tell.  If journalists are posing as fortune tellers, then they have a serious conflict of interest.  They produce the news that influences opinions which has a lot to do with the actions of the future.  Have they considered that the way they report this story will possibly have a greater effect on foreign adoptions than the events themselves?

Meanwhile, I have yet to see an opinion piece that attempts to explore the ethical implications from the volunteer team's point of view.  What might you do in a similar situation?  If you have the chance to help hurting children, possibly saving their lives, what gray areas would you be willing to cross?  If you were in a country where everything seemed to be broken how likely would you be to go through the possibly futile and possibly unnecessary process of some paperwork when you have a very limited amount of time?  If a parent looked at you and said, "please, help my child." and you were the only one there able to help, what would you do?  I don't know if that is anywhere close to the situation this team faced, but I haven't heard anyone considering it.  It will be interesting to see how the media will treat the team as they return to the U.S., God willing.  After they've exploited their images for profit, will they give them a fair chance to share their story?

In summary

Kidnapping = Bad
Adoption = Good
Reporting on this incident = Bad and misleading so far
Faith I have in the media = Close to zero


Comments

  1. As a journalism major I will say this...Not that it is right, or fair, but the reality of journalism (both in free countries, and those under communist rule) is that at the end of the day, the purpose of news is not just reporting or sharing facts. In America specifically, news is run and operated by large corporations who need consumers of the news. Reporting straight facts often does not bring people to purchase a paper or consume the news in other formats. A headline suggesting that Baptist Missionaries are stealing children, now that (deception, not lying, right?!) sells papers.

    I don't know that we can really expect anything different either. Why wouldn't they operate like this? Perhaps only if their consumers didn't consume sensationalism.

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  2. That is a good point. I wonder what effect the internet is having on this phenomenon--the relationship of media to business and to the public. At first it seemed like blogging would level the playing field, but it could be that attention is just as strong an incentive as profit. The only incentive for honesty in reporting (other than a personal sense of morals) is to preserve consumer trust. As "post-modern" thought continues to pervade, people may not really care if a story is true or trustworthy. If it fits and authenticates their own worldview then it will sell.

    On a practical note, as a consumer, what choice do I have? Reading news on the internet is free, mostly. They get paid before readers get to judge their product. Well, the joke is on them, because I use ad blocking software, haha!

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