When journalism fails

The key job of a journalist is to report information and package it into something readable so that the reader is both informed and kept interested. Unfortunately for this generation, journalism has strayed far from that mandate into the arena of entertainment. That’s not to place the blame solely on the news media—they were simply following a trend. Evolving technology has created a society where everyone has ADD. If it’s not sensational, the reader or viewer is just going to click something else.

Two reports released this week underscore this point and demonstrate the detriment this causes to society.  On June 1, a number of publications started publishing a report by the National Coalition for Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) showing that anti-LGBT murders rose 11 percent in 2011 to their highest level recorded. Then on June 4, Reuters released a Pew Research poll that concluded Americans are now more sharply divided by partisan ideology than by distinctions of race, religion, education or sex.

So what’s the common denominator? Let’s look deeper. The NCAVP report spread around Twitter like wildfire, thanks to hash-tags like “LGBT.” I was alarmed to see the posts—weren’t we as a society moving forward? How could anti-LGBT murders be up? For all the sensationalist headlines, I soon found I was being let down by my fellow reporters.

The 11 percent figure was certainly accurate. But that “surge” in murders was from 27 to 30. No, no—not 30,000. Not 300. Thirty—across 16 states. And this “growing trend” was clearly the result of random fluctuations. The bar graph depicting the number of anti-LGBT murders since 1998 looked like a rollercoaster. In 1999, there were 29 murders; in 2002, there were 12. The numbers have gone up and down between 10 and 30 for the past 14 years in no decipherable trend. Yet the story frames it as a coming travesty:

“Murders of LGBTQ people have increased over the last three years, indicating a pattern of escalating violence against LGBTQ and HIV-affected people,” said Jake Finney from the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Community Center in Los Angeles in the story accompanying the report.

This is the pitfall of journalism: people take information that benefits their cause, present it so that it shocks and awes, and quote a reliably biased source. Ideally, we would like to see zero anti-LGBT murders. But using numbers to distort the reality of a situation to push an agenda is wrong—no matter how just the cause.

I’ve worked for political campaigns before and understand marketing, branding and pushing a message. Sadly, the lines between true journalism and public relations have become too blurred. Predicting trends is one of the easiest ways to fall into that trap. Saying that the increase in anti-LGBT murders over the past years represents a trend is highly inaccurate given the fluctuation of the numbers and the ridiculously tiny scale of the sample.

Yet Finney understands that evoking strong language will generate sympathy among his target audience—the LGBT community and allies. They might even be more willing to open their pockets to donate to an LGBT health center … ahem. Would that be wrong? Of course not. Mr. Finney is only doing his job. But the wrongdoing is on journalists who fall prey to the always-helpful public relations contact.

What this leads to was clearly on display in the second poll highlighting America’s disastrous political divide. When media organizations push an agenda and sensationalize news—I’m looking at you, msnbc and FOX News—the public chooses to solely consume news from the organization in which it generally agrees. You can see what happens when a person is spoon-fed one of only two narrow, ideologically driven narratives: the current political standstill.

Exaggerating numbers and statistics is easy when your audience looks at you as the expert. This form of media consumer, though, is highly destructive. America would not be so divided if news were given to the public free of pomp and circumstance. The report on anti-LGBT murders was a legitimate piece of factual information of concern to the LGBT community. But using a statistic to whip up fear and allow a source with an obvious bias to call something a “trend” is not journalism — it’s PR. Unfortunately, our generation will be the one paying for it.