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Lee Rasch: The problem with Bothsideism

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Bothsideism is an interesting term which is growing in prominence in today’s divided political climate. Merriam-Webster officials consider it among the Words We’re Watching … words they are increasingly seeing in use, but not yet meeting criteria for entry into the dictionary.

It refers to media or public figures giving credence to the other side of a cause, action or idea in order to seem fair, despite evidence that the credibility of that side may be in question. In other words, presenting an issue as being more balanced between opposing viewpoints than the evidence supports.

One example is when public figures equivocate about a seemingly condemnable action by a person or group, saying that people on both sides are equally responsible. On Aug. 4, 2022, Amnesty International issued a statement criticizing the Ukrainian government for the deaths of Ukrainian citizens because of the Russian invasion …downplaying the overwhelming evidence of numerous civilian targets by Russian missiles and long-range artillery. This is bothsideism.

Is there anything wrong with attempting to present multiple sides on an issue? Perhaps the answer depends upon one’s point of view. According to a July 2022 Pew Research study, a little more than half of the journalists surveyed (55%) say that every side does not always deserve equal coverage in the news. Only 22% of the American public agree with this statement. In fact, about three-quarters (76%) say journalists should always strive to give all sides equal coverage. Clearly, we expect journalists to work to meet this expectation.

The issue of expectations becomes more complex when factoring misinformation. According to the same July 2022 study by Pew Research, there is also a notable difference among journalists based on how they view the issue of made-up news and information. Nearly six in 10 journalists (59%) who identify made-up news as a very big problem for the nation today say all sides do not always deserve equal coverage. Journalists who see misinformation as less of a problem are more split: 53% support always striving for equal coverage, compared with 46% who say it is not always merited.

All the while, overall public trust in media and public leaders is dropping. According to the July 2022 Gallup poll, trust in institutions, across the board, is at an all-time low. Trust in national news organizations ranges from 5% to 8%. At the bottom of the list, trust in Congress is 5%. These data indicate that at least 92% of Americans have either some/little/no trust in these institutions.

You can begin to see the dilemma. The public demand for hearing both sides of the issues is strong. Yet even when we are hearing both sides, we are seeing a decrease in public trust. Perhaps the public perception is that the sides presented are not in balance. In other words, bothsideism.

Are there reasons why we shouldn’t just throw up our hands with these issues? Actually, there are. And it is important that we don’t paint all the information we receive from the media and political leaders with the broad brush of bothsideism. First, we can take some personal steps to become more knowledgeable about the various sides for an issue. The website AllSides is a good resource. They rate various media sources from very liberal to very conservative … a practice that can be helpful when coming across a story from an unknown source. Additionally, they feature national stories from liberal, moderate and conservative views. As a result, the reader can get a “3D view” of an issue in one location.

There are also groups actively assisting local communities to address problems with the conflicting views we are currently seeing. Braver Angels is one worth noting. Their workshops help people with strong political views to develop improved mutual respect and understanding of the views of others. Braver Angels was formed in 2016 following the contentious election of that year. It has become a national movement to bring liberals, conservatives, and others together at the grassroots level.

In their words, they are not trying to find centrist compromise, but to find one another as citizens. The foundation of their activities is referred to as patriotic empathy: the idea that our love for our country is shown by our concern for our fellow citizens. Since 2016, they have conducted more than 1000 workshops across the country, with tens of thousands of participants including an active presence in Wisconsin.

Finally, despite the decline in public trust of media and government in recent years, people are far more likely to support local media, as well as the work of local government officials. According to January 2022 Pew Research data, the public trust in local media is over 68%. And the trust in local government as reported in a study by Deloitte is 67%. We are far more likely to trust local officials (our neighbors) than national figures.

This is important information. While the political news at the national and state level can seem overwhelming, engagement in our own communities is where real change can happen. This means we can cultivate local trust levels into local action. At the same time, we can recognize and resist political pressure from state and national sources.

Taking these actions won’t solve all of our political problems. But they can be a meaningful start. Presenting both sides of an issue is not the problem. It is the failure of both sides to be willing to come together to work on the issue. As citizens, that’s where we come in.

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