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Read about Jay Rosen's book, What Are Journalists For?

Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

Essay in Columbia Journalism Review on the changing terms of authority in the press, brought on in part by the blog's individual--and interactive--style of journalism. It argues that, after Jayson Blair, authority is not the same at the New York Times, either.

"Web Users Open the Gates." My take on ten years of Internet journalism, at

Read: Q & As

Jay Rosen, interviewed about his work and ideas by journalist Richard Poynder

Achtung! Interview in German with a leading German newspaper about the future of newspapers and the Net.

Audio: Have a Listen

Listen to an audio interview with Jay Rosen conducted by journalist Christopher Lydon, October 2003. It's about the transformation of the journalism world by the Web.

Five years later, Chris Lydon interviews Jay Rosen again on "the transformation." (March 2008, 71 minutes.)

Interview with host Brooke Gladstone on NPR's "On the Media." (Dec. 2003) Listen here.

Presentation to the Berkman Center at Harvard University on open source journalism and NewAssignment.Net. Downloadable mp3, 70 minutes, with Q and A. Nov. 2006.

Video: Have A Look

Half hour video interview with Robert Mills of the American Microphone series. On blogging, journalism, NewAssignment.Net and distributed reporting.

Jay Rosen explains the Web's "ethic of the link" in this four-minute YouTube clip.

"The Web is people." Jay Rosen speaking on the origins of the World Wide Web. (2:38)

One hour video Q & A on why the press is "between business models" (June 2008)

Recommended by PressThink:

Town square for press critics, industry observers, and participants in the news machine: Romenesko, published by the Poynter Institute.

Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

Eschaton by Atrios (pen name of Duncan B;ack) is one of the most well established political weblogs, with big traffic and very active comment threads. Left-liberal.

Terry Teachout is a cultural critic coming from the Right at his weblog, About Last Night. Elegantly written and designed. Plus he has lots to say about art and culture today.

Dave Winer is the software wiz who wrote the program that created the modern weblog. He's also one of the best practicioners of the form. Scripting News is said to be the oldest living weblog. Read it over time and find out why it's one of the best.

If someone were to ask me, "what's the right way to do a weblog?" I would point them to Doc Searls, a tech writer and sage who has been doing it right for a long time.

Ed Cone writes one of the most useful weblogs by a journalist. He keeps track of the Internet's influence on politics, as well developments in his native North Carolina. Always on top of things.

Rebecca's Pocket by Rebecca Blood is a weblog by an exemplary practitioner of the form, who has also written some critically important essays on its history and development, and a handbook on how to blog.

Dan Gillmor used to be the tech columnist and blogger for the San Jose Mercury News. He now heads a center for citizen media. This is his blog about it.

A former senior editor at Pantheon, Tom Englehardt solicits and edits commentary pieces that he publishes in blog form at TomDispatches. High-quality political writing and cultural analysis.

Chris Nolan's Spot On is political writing at a high level from Nolan and her band of left-to-right contributors. Her notion of blogger as a "stand alone journalist" is a key concept; and Nolan is an exemplar of it.

Barista of Bloomfield Avenue is journalist Debbie Galant's nifty experiment in hyper-local blogging in several New Jersey towns. Hers is one to watch if there's to be a future for the weblog as news medium.

The Editor's Log, by John Robinson, is the only real life honest-to-goodness weblog by a newspaper's top editor. Robinson is the blogging boss of the Greensboro News-Record and he knows what he's doing.

Fishbowl DC is about the world of Washington journalism. Gossip, controversies, rituals, personalities-- and criticism. Good way to keep track of the press tribe in DC

PJ Net Today is written by Leonard Witt and colleagues. It's the weblog of the Public Journalisn Network (I am a founding member of that group) and it follows developments in citizen-centered journalism.

Here's Simon Waldman's blog. He's the Director of Digital Publishing for The Guardian in the UK, the world's most Web-savvy newspaper. What he says counts.

Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

Betsy Newmark's weblog she describes as "comments and Links from a history and civics teacher in Raleigh, NC." An intelligent and newsy guide to blogs on the Right side of the sphere. I go there to get links and comment, like the teacher said.

Rhetoric is language working to persuade. Professor Andrew Cline's Rhetorica shows what a good lens this is on politics and the press.

Davos Newbies is a "year-round Davos of the mind," written from London by Lance Knobel. He has a cosmopolitan sensibility and a sharp eye for things on the Web that are just... interesting. This is the hardest kind of weblog to do well. Knobel does it well.

Susan Crawford, a law professor, writes about democracy, technology, intellectual property and the law. She has an elegant weblog about those themes.

Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

Susan Mernit's blog is "writing and news about digital media, ecommerce, social networks, blogs, search, online classifieds, publishing and pop culture from a consultant, writer, and sometime entrepeneur." Connected.

Group Blogs

CJR Daily is Columbia Journalism Review's weblog about the press and its problems, edited by Steve Lovelady, formerly of the Philadelpia Inquirer.

Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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October 24, 2003

Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate, part one

Denouncing bias in the media has become a dumb instrument. The cases keep coming. The charges keep flying. Often the subject--journalism--disappears.

The only thing I ever saw that came close to Objective Journalism was a closed-circuit TV setup that watched shoplifters in the General Store at Woody Creek, Colorado. I always admired that machine, but I noticed that nobody paid any attention to it until one of those known, heavy, out-front shoplifters came into the place… but when that happened, everybody got so excited that the thief had to do something quick, like buy a green popsicle or a can of Coors and get out of the place immediately.

— Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

Listen up, everyone engaged in the you’re biased style of press criticism.

Hear this, those who, in civic-spirited fashion, have formed groups left and right, here and there to document bias in the press. I mean you and you and you and you. But also you and you and you and you and you too.

This is for all the booming voices in the media heard complaining about bias in the media, as well as the smaller but no less committed voices, outside the media, complaining about bias (also called spin) inside the media— including the comments section of any number of posts at PressThink and probably a thousand other weblogs too, where arguments well known are even now being tapped out to harangue and provoke some other nonbeliever.

This is also for the good authors who have taken up media bias at book length, and everyone who likes to argue about those books—some quite good, some terrible—and everyone who likes to shout at bias before blatant instances of bias just seen on television. (Know anyone like that?)

This here is a post for practically everyone in the game of seizing on media bias and denouncing it, which is part of our popular culture, and of course a loud part of our politics. And this is especially for the “we’re fair and balanced, you’re not” crowd, wherever I may have located you.

All within ear of reason, I have six questions. In tomorrow’s posting, I’ll give two answers:


1.) If you walk up to a journalist with: “did you know you’re biased?” by far the most likely response from that person will be: actually, you’re saying that because you’re biased. Does that strike you as a sensible conversation, worth continuing?

2.) If, aware of this response, you decide you need evidence, and so produce the many cases of bias you and cohort have found, then you ought to be aware that people who disagree entirely with your point of view—opponents, let’s call them—are doing the same thing, piling up cases, so that your cases can be piled next to their cases, and both piles can be shoved at news providers. The truth is in there somewhere. Maybe. But does it seem likely to you that it will be found and feared?

3.) Forgetting about all that, suppose you succeed in showing that here, on a key issue we care about, the media was very clearly biased, not once or twice, but in a broad and persistent pattern, which you have documented so well we must grant the claim: yes, there is bias in the media and it’s getting bad. Would you then be able to tell me what kind of bias is good?

4.) Permit me to answer for you. Chances are you won’t tell me what kind of media bias is good for journalists to show— even though there’s nothing to stop you from speculating about it. Instead, you will prefer something like, “give me journalists who will give me the news, tell me the truth, without all that spin.” Which is exactly what most journalists want and claim to be doing, albeit imperfectly. They claim to be reporting objectively, without fear or favor, fighting the spin with facts they can verify. Is it interesting to you, is it at all relevant, that you both want the same thing?

5.) “Ha!” you are likely to say. (Or someone you know says it.) “Their objectivity is a myth, no one can be completely objective, least of all these guys.” You have the pile of studies to show it. Or someone does. But wait: now you have just admitted that what you wanted two sentences ago, “the news without all that spin,” is, in fact, impossible. Objectivity is a myth, you recall that. Don’t these attitudes—wanting from journalists what is also impossible for journalists—seem somehow confused or least unfair?

6.) Liberal spin. Corporate spin. Texas spin. Zionist spin. Republican spin. Hollywood spin. American spin. Anti-American spin. We want it out, out, out. Spin, that’s bad. But critics smart enough to detect spin are smart enough to see—and in fact, they do see—that claiming, “they’re spinning!” has itself become a form of spin, a popular one, which would seem to throw spin detection, never a clear cut thing, into total incoherence. Does that bother you, or is it only my spin?

See part two of this post, which is my attempt to offer some answers.

Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group, answers my six questions here.

Courtesy of Daniel Dezner, here is Brian C. Anderson, writing from the Right, “We’re not losing the culture wars anymore.” Provocative and smart. Calls for adjustment in the bias critique. Click on Drezner for his very lively comments thread.

Bill Steigerwald of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a libertarian, sent me this link to his September 14th column: “Can we please stop this senseless book war about political bias in the news media?”

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 24, 2003 2:06 PM   Print


Oh, yeah. Can't wait for tomorrow! :-)

Posted by: acline at October 24, 2003 2:42 PM | Permalink

I've been in it long enough to see that those that craft stories to further their ideologies (on either side) will never stop. More voices pointing out bias is only a good thing.

Posted by: Jeff Merrer at October 24, 2003 3:19 PM | Permalink

A good thing. I agree. But only a good thing?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 24, 2003 3:25 PM | Permalink

I always thought journalists were suppposed to be biased -- biased in favor of a flourishing democratic society.

Posted by: John McManus at October 24, 2003 3:41 PM | Permalink

I always thought journalists were suppposed to be biased -- biased in favor of a flourishing democratic society.

Posted by: John McManus at October 24, 2003 3:41 PM | Permalink

Let's start with the upcoming CBS-TV movie about her life and times with Ronald Reagan...

Posted by: Rodger Schultz at October 24, 2003 3:48 PM | Permalink

More smoke and mirrors. That's the response from j-schools and the j-profession to this issue. What someone needs to do is actually respond to the hundreds of instances that are recorded every day on blogs and Web sites and explain them away if they can. I referenced in an earlier post. Yes, they're biased. But explain away the egregious incidents they chronicle. Read Andrew Sullivan almost any day and explain away the NYT abuses he chronicles. Don't just obfuscate and say, "Both sides do it." They don't. If I'm missing the hundreds of cases of conservative bias in the media, someone please point me to them. Social scientists write tomes about how ideology and religion affect everything we do. Funny how liberal journalists are said to be immune from these hidden influences.

Posted by: rivlax at October 24, 2003 3:59 PM | Permalink


this post reminds me of several favorite quotes from Kovach and Rosenstiel's Elements of Journalism:

"The concept of objectivity has been so mangled it now is usually used to describe the very problem it was conceived to correct..." (pg. 13)

"The term (objectivity) has become so misunderstood and battered, it mostly gets the discussion off track. ...originally it was not the journalist who was imagined to objective. It was his method. Today, however, in part because journalists have failed to articulate what they are doing, our contemporary understanding of this idea is mostly a muddle." (pg. 41)

Later in that chapter they go on to describe how the "search for truth becomes a conversation."

Great stuff.

Posted by: shayne bowman at October 24, 2003 4:09 PM | Permalink


Much like major league pitchers, all I want fron the media is consistency.

If they cover a Democratic President, in a snarky, highly cynical, unforgiving manner, they should damn well cover a Republican President the same way.

Not change the rules of the game depending upon who's ox is being gored.

It's a well known fact that major league umpires ALL interpret the strike zone in their own unique way.

Some have a wider zone. Others squeeze the plate.

Still others call high strikes, while others call low strikes.

What both pitchers and hitters in the big leagues expect, however, is that each umpire call the balls and strikes THE SAME WAY FOR BOTH TEAMS.

A BAD umpire [or a "biased one" if you will] is one that gives one team's pitcher a wide strike zone, and the opposing team's pitcher a smaller strike zone.

Or, on some cases, they alter their strike zone from inning to inning.

To the extent I complain about media bias, it's focused mainly on the fact that the news media has a double, or even a triple standard depending on who they are covering.

All we want is consistency, and a general sense of accuracy. Is that too much to ask?

Posted by: Hesiod at October 24, 2003 4:26 PM | Permalink

"Let's start with the upcoming CBS-TV movie about her life and times with Ronald Reagan..."


Posted by: hesiod at October 24, 2003 4:28 PM | Permalink


Congratulations on not understanding a damn thing you just read.

Posted by: JMK at October 24, 2003 4:36 PM | Permalink


OF COURSE journalists are biased. Every thinking human being is biased. We all bring to bear our individual viewpoints on any subject, viewpoints formed by our upbringing, religion, education, economic circumstances, what we had for breakfast that morning, and a thousand other factors.

The people who founded our country knew this. They faced a press that was much less professional than ours today and didn't worry too much about screening out bias. They added a gurantee of free press to the Constitution, in the expectation that out of the many competing, biased voices, something like the truth would emerge.

I'd say that on the whole it's worked pretty well so far.

Posted by: Jeff Bendix at October 24, 2003 4:40 PM | Permalink

Or could it be that, when confronted with a fact that is unpleasant, be it Bush's low approval ratings or Bill Clinton's philandering, one simply disregards the unpleasant fact and accuses media of bias in reporting it?

I'm beginning to call it, generally, the total Decline of Objective Reality. It's as if, in all areas of the political sphere especially, we have surrendered the concept of true and false.


Posted by: Athenae at October 24, 2003 4:49 PM | Permalink

Certainly we are all biased--which is just a way of saying that all human beings operate with an ideology and within cultures and history.

That does not mean, however, that reporters and editors--journalism as a whole--have an ubiquitous political agenda that they push on their readers. The biases of journalism are more structural than ideological re: (also liked in Jay's post).

As I have said many times before: 1) Political bias in the news media is a localized phenomenon; 2) You can "prove" anything you please with anecdotal evidence; 3) Claims of political bias are not predictive of press behavior; and 4) The structural biases of journalism do predict press behavior and, therefore, constitute a theory.

No amount of anecdotal yammering can match those four points. The misconception of ubiquitous political bias persists because: 1) People make money peddling this nonsense; and 2) Claims of political bias in the news media fit the rhetorical goals of ideological struggle.

ANY kind of bias in the news media must be examined, be it structural biases or the occasional instances in which political bias does affect coverage. That's just a normal part of being a critical reader and citizen.

Posted by: acline at October 24, 2003 5:00 PM | Permalink

Here's my read on this: The New York Times, CNN, NBC, ABC and CBS have a mild liberal bias. The bias is for the most part unconscious, or it's conscious but they try to compensate for it. Still, it drives conservatives crazy because these news orgs are so influential. Fox News, the New York Post, the Washington Times et al have a pronounced conservative bias, which they consider a necessary tonic to the bias they perceive in the "liberal" media. Although these outlets are less respected, they drive liberals crazy becase they not only claim to be objective but needle the liberal orgs for their bias. Fun.

Posted by: Jeff Bercovici at October 24, 2003 5:16 PM | Permalink

I came upon Jay's post minutes after reading this article in an alternative weekly, by a former reporter and editor of the Providence Journal, who writes near the conclusion of his piece:

> If you’ve gotten this far in a long story, you’ve figured out that I myself am a f*ing liberal. I was raised by a Vermont preacher who was married to an early Richard M. Nixon hater — Depression-era parents who revered FDR and the New Deal, and whose radical beliefs, like the labor union I joined at the Journal, postulated that all people should have enough to eat, get a good education, have a roof over their heads, receive medical care, hold a decent job, be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and not be judged on the color of their skin, the configuration of their sex organs, or the size of their paychecks. Crazy, Looney Tunes, ultra-wacko.

> In fact, I worry a lot whether my point of view gets in the way of the stories that I’ve been doing in the Phoenix. I don’t want to be a shill for organized labor or the Democratic Party. But I do have personal beliefs. What I try to do is use those points of view as the jumping off place when deciding what stories to propose to the Phoenix, subjects that need to be discussed and are important to democracy and the human condition.

> What I hope is that, regardless of what I suspect when I begin a story, that I will tell it honestly, that I will be fair to both the people I write about and to the readers of the paper, and that I will let the facts — as I’m able to discover and understand them — take the story to its own conclusion.

Perhaps we need more transparency, more open discussion of where reporters are coming from, instead of hiding behind a crumbling facade of objectivity for all journalistic pursuits.

Posted by: JD Lasica at October 24, 2003 5:20 PM | Permalink

This one came via email from journalist James Varney:

What are the odds that, in an otherwise all-over-the-map piece trying to debunk the notion there is no bias in the press, you would link to Goldberg's book, and call it "terrible," and Alterman's book, and call it "quite good?" I mean, who could have predicted that?

Of course there's a liberal bias. It's not worth talking about, except that you won't admit it. Have you ever worked at a newspaper (I've been working at U.S. dailies for 16 years now)? How many friends do you have working for network news, or CNN? Do you think the breakdown there is anything remotely close to the 50/50 split we see nationwide? Did it shock you more than 80 percent of the Washington press corps voted for Clinton when he could never get 50 percent nationwide? Would you be surprised to hear that at Columbia J-School in the fall of 1988, when I was there, the question was put to an assembly - more than 100 budding "journalists": "Who here supports George Bush?" Six people raised their hands.

I'm not suggesting the split in newsrooms should be 50/50, or even that it should mirror the popular vote. In other words, when Reagan got 60 percent of the vote, it wouldn't be a good thing to try to make 60 percent of reporters Republicans. But the press could use more. Saying it doesn't, or that the overwhelming majority - and I mean overwhelming - isn't tilting liberal is intellectually dishonest.

All the best -

James Varney

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 24, 2003 5:26 PM | Permalink

Hey, this is an awesome post. My attitude is that you cannot begin to understand the truth until you hear as many different views from as many different sides as you can. But even then there is spin in there somewhere. Yet, if the reader understands this then they can get by and get a better grasp of the news.

Posted by: Matt at October 24, 2003 5:26 PM | Permalink

Jay: I'm fascinated of late why so many people who get into journalism have these "liberal" leanings. The roomful of young people with the handful voting for Bush does represent the newsrooms I've worked in. Everybody speculates (j-school brainwashing perhaps?) but really, what is it about newsies that gives them this political tendency?

Posted by: tom at October 24, 2003 6:18 PM | Permalink

There seem to be two main positions in this discussion. The predominant one, is that perfect journalistic objectivity, while it may be impossible to achieve, should be the ultimate goal of professional journalism. The press and its most vocal critics share this belief.

The minority view might be called the marketplace of ideas. In this view, greater diversity of voices in the press allows the citizen to construct an objective view of reality.

Both of these views are mistaken. The first position equates objectivity with honesty, when, in fact, objectivity is blatant dishonesty. It leaves the press as a weak force to be manipulated by the clever and powerful. The second ignores the fact that we seek out viewpoints that reinforce rather than challenge our own.

Ultimately, what we need from the press is not more objectivity or greater diversity, but a commitment to the seeking out the important truthes about public life. Deciding which truthes are important is the discussion we should be having.

Posted by: John Cavnar-Johnson at October 24, 2003 6:21 PM | Permalink

As a frequent media critic, I think Jay has hit on an essential truth: there is plenty of evidence of bias, from both sides. Some can even point to convincing patterns over time, on both sides.

However ... there's bias, and then there's bias. Part of the problem is that the word has lost any clear meaning -- it's used to incorporate many different critiques of the media.

For example, the fact that in times of war, the media *tends to*, *overall* give the government prosecuting the war the benefit of the doubt -- leaning "pro-war" -- I think is indisputable. It's true in many societies, in many different periods of time. It was definitely true during the Iraq war.

However, that's different than some other forms of "bias" people complain about -- left/right bias (favoring one or another presidential candidate), content bias (the "herd mentality," influence of advertising on content), etc. etc.

Posted by: Max at October 24, 2003 6:24 PM | Permalink

Really glad I ran across a link to this post.

I'm not certain how it came about that being liberal meant one could not perform one's job adequatedly. There's a lot of people chasing ghosts on both sides of the fence, but to what end? Who benefits most from perpetuating the "bias" myth?

I tend to believe most people are able to "correct" for whatever minimal bias that is allowed to seep into the mainstream media, whether it be conservative or liberal.

That there are people making a great deal of money by taking advatange of widespread political paranoia is a testament to the gullibility of certain sectors of the American public.

Posted by: Joe M. at October 24, 2003 6:54 PM | Permalink

Jay: It's sooo much better in the UK, where newspapers are known for their "bias," or world-view or party sympathies or even class-affiliations (tabs for the mouth-breathers; broadsheets for the toffs). It worked that way in the US--before newspaper competition collapsed. Now most papers have all the vim and vinegar of a blow-in message in your utility bill. In fact, they have become, effectively, public utilities--handcuffed by their own "success."

Today's American media sins--by NOT being honestly, up-front, in-your-face biased. The contemporary, marketing-savvy US newspaper editor, carefully selected by his or her corporate overseers to NOT SCREW UP, simply lacks the background, inclination or courage to take anything that even smells like a risk. That's the real "bias." And it sucks.

Posted by: chev at October 24, 2003 7:13 PM | Permalink

Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group (my post linked several times to them), gives punchy answers my six questions. One thing I find interesting: his use of something akin to game theory to explain how MRC and rival groups operate.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 24, 2003 7:14 PM | Permalink

Sometimes I think the lobbing of the charge: "bias"! is used to dismiss the supposedly biased reporting. And sometimes it's used to close off more reporting or conversation, or undermine trust or validity. However, it seems like fear of it has lead to institutional reporting that is something like: "well, on the one hand, this guy says the world is round, but on the other, that guys say the world is flat", and I'm an unbiased reporter so I'm not going to comment on the validity of either. Worse, because of the tremendous rush and stress reporters are under to perform in newsrooms with dwindling budgets, and the lack of enough time to learn about subjects, and get them right, in an increasingly complex world, they default to that sort of reporting. The real issue is, are we getting to truth in our discourse, and is the media making people interested in truth, and getting to truth. Not very often, but sometimes, when we are lucky, I think. And that's why blog discussion across many (biased) blogs is very helpful. I don't care if someone is biased; of course they are. I do care if they are trying their best to get at the truth, and sharing that information.

Posted by: mary hodder at October 24, 2003 7:53 PM | Permalink

In my experience in daily newspapers, Mr. Varney's observation -- that there is a significantly greater percentage of liberals -- prevails, but lessens incredibly the further you go up the ladder . In my current newsroom, we have only a few conservative reporters, but we have no one at the managing editor level or higher who could be considered a liberal. At the papers I deal with every day, I cannot name a single politically liberal editor or publisher.

So perhaps numbers are not the true measure of the media's political leanings. Perhaps looking at power, where and how decisions get made, is a better one.

Posted by: A.H. at October 24, 2003 8:14 PM | Permalink

Journalists are mostly liberal for the same reason corporate boardrooms are mostly Republican. Choices have consequences.

Posted by: Rich at October 25, 2003 10:01 AM | Permalink

Rich--that's a cheap shot. Liberal journalists don't think they're liberal--they just assume that everyone thinks their way. Pro-choice, anti-gun, anti-SUV, pro-labor, --these are the CORRECT opinions and if you disagree, well, you're ignorant or evil. It's not just what the journo writes but who's used as a source. Calling NOW to for a comment on a women's issue, and never calling anyone else is an easy example. NPR just did this with the "right to die" or "right to starve your wife" case down in Florida. The only experts quoted were in favor of dehydration and the sleazeball husband, under the rubric of being compassionate and sophisticated.I'm sure the producers never dreamed their biases were showing--they were just crafting the story to fit their own mind-sets and that of the NPR audience. News You Can Use, after all.

The Ronnie/Nancy MOW is exempt as it's fiction, based on fact, but still fiction. I'm a tich surprised CBS' standards and practices dept allowed the "sinful AIDS patients" scene as it can't be documented, but Nancy's unlikely to sue, so the writer probably felt she could get away with it. It's "art", after a fashion, but such a low blow.

Posted by: Kate at October 25, 2003 11:02 AM | Permalink

Cheap shot? Cryptic maybe. I wasn't criticizing journalists or corporate boardrooms. I was trying to make the point that conservatives who tend to believe in the system are more likely to end up in business, skeptics might be more inclined to become journalists. I know thats simplistic but it's an alternative to conspiracy theories.

To be consistent, shouldn't the people who want a 50-50 ideological balance from journalists demand the same from business? And vice-versa.

Posted by: Rich at October 25, 2003 1:03 PM | Permalink

Life experiences and growing older change "bias" unless you are rich and/or rich and powerful, then you can belive anything you want and spew it out until you die!

Posted by: Sue Harris at October 25, 2003 1:58 PM | Permalink

Men and women, liberals, conservatives, Christians, Muslims, Questioners -- everyone I've met and worked with in 15 years of daily newspapering, almost without exception, got into the work because they want to "do good," in the best possible sense of those two words.

That is, they believe in the power of community journalism to help by informing, by telling people how their tax money is being spent inside city hall, how their schools are doing, where to go for free flu shots, and why wasn't there enough salt for the roads last winter?

On the non-national level, at least, day-by-day coverage is not pushed by a political or social agenda, but by tough -- and sometimes arbitrary -- demands on time and limited resources. Looking over a year, we're fair and balanced, but you may not think so based on one story in today's paper, because that was a story about Pat Robertson's appearence at a local church, or the ACLU's victory in a local court.

Kate is wrong. I don't have the luxury of assuming anything, much less that people think the way I do. Or, God forbid, that they SHOULD.

Vive la difference -- that's a big part of what makes a writer or reporter's life interesting.

Posted by: Kenneth Kesner at October 25, 2003 3:33 PM | Permalink

I'd like to put in a pitch for objectivity, much as many here claim it should be relegated to the dustbin of journalistic history.

I understand the rationale for why it might be preferable for a reporter to reveal their bias in the interest of greater transparency. On the surface, it seems like a great idea: be honest about who you are and where you're coming from, and the reader will accept your reporting with those biases in mind. That said, there are a few problematic assumptions in the logic behind this argument for subjectivity.

The first mistake in endorsing subjectivity is that we're implicitly giving the reporter's opinions equal standing with the news that is being reported. In my estimation, this violates one of journalism's core principles: the reporter is not part of the story, and his or her opinions just aren't all that important in the larger context of the news that is being reported. It's an often heard tenet, but it is one that bears repeating. There's a proper time and place for revealing opinions - and that's why op-ed pages exist. Introduce subjectivity to the equation and all news coverage becomes opinion coverage. I would wager that's not the best way to salvage the media's consistently low approval rating. I appreciate columnists who put a significant premium on reporting in crafting their analyses, such as Thomas Friedman, but Friedman is still a columnist and should be labeled as such.

Equally problematic is the issue of pragmatism. If the goal is to reveal one's biases, the question arises: to what extent? Given the pressing time and space constraints for most print and television reporters, there is a very real risk that the revelation of one's opinions will crowd out the actual story. If, for instance, I'm reporting for CNN on a breaking news story on a Supreme Court decision regarding abortion, I simply do not have the time to issue lofty pronouncements about what I think about abortion or how my opinions might be affected by these developments, as the clock continues to tick and I'm being yelled at in my earpiece to wrap it up. And it's doubtful that a graphic or byline with the reporter's name and party affiliation - e.g. "Brian Jones, F*ing Liberal" -would explain anything in a meaningful way.

In fact, since most people's views are difficult to classify on a left-right continuum in any case, one would have to go into extreme detail about one's political views: "As a registered Republican who's fiscally conservative and socially liberal, I think the impact of this Supreme Court decision will be..." and so forth. As a news consumer, my eyes would glaze over. I just don't care what any given reporter's views are unless they happen to writing a column.

Finally, subjectivity is just not a challenge. It's true that objectivity may never be able to be attained fully, but that is too often used as an excuse to disregard it as an ideal altogether. We've got to hold ourselves to a higher standard. The public may not expect much from us, but there's nothing to prevent us from surprising them from time to time.

Posted by: Bill at October 25, 2003 6:24 PM | Permalink

re: James Varney

I did not interpret the essay as saying bias does not exist in media. I consider it a critique of bias-baiting that permeates our culture. "Are we approaching bias in a way that gets anywhere?" seems the main thrust of the piece.

I wonder if James can conceive of a reason why Jay might think Bernie Goldberg's book is terrible other than his possibly being ideologically opposed to it.

re: spin=bias
Equating spin and bias may not be useful. Spin might be more appropriately applied to messages. "He spun the debate his way." "I need to spin my testimony so I sound like a victim."

Bias, on the other hand, may be more appropriately applied to sources of messages. "That witness is biased against the accused." "Nielsen network ratings are often thought to have a participant-bias in their sample."

Bias seems more like a state entities exist in, while spin is something people do to a message, or the state of a message itself. There is an intent to spin.

Posted by: Michael at October 26, 2003 10:56 AM | Permalink

Ken, you must be a rarity. I'm in the media and literally everyone I know assumes that we are all in this together--agreeable, well-read, not very well-off people who are against silicone in tits, kids in private schools, and God in the classroom. Spare me--I'm not wrong just because my experience doesn't match with yours. But then, you would think I'wrong, now wouldn't you? Personally, I don't care if a writer's life is "interesting"--only the work matters.

Posted by: Kate at October 26, 2003 11:59 AM | Permalink

I always find the debate over objectivity interesting. Reporters must use their own judgement when deciding whether something is a story in the first place. As a working journalist, I form opinions on stories I am covering all the time. What I find worrisome is not that reporters have opinions about the stories and issues they are covering: it is the ones who deny it had any role in the way the story was covered.
One of my first editors explained it thus: A good reporter always thinks about the story before begins reporting. That way he has a place to start. BUT, a good reporter can 1) be aware of his own biases and take steps to prevent them from showing themselves in the final story, and 2) be willing to reevaluate the story as he is reporting it, to ensure what he reports in the real story, and not hold onto the concept he created before his reporting began.
I consider myself a fiscal conservative (small gaovernment, lower taxes, etc) and liberal on social issues (pro-choice, anti-death penalty, & legalization of same-sex marriages etc).
However, in y last job covering a small town, I came away with the realization the probelm in the town's finances wasn't from wasteful spending as much as the taxpayers hadn't been paying enough taxes for the services they demanded. After 20 eyars without any tax increase, the town was fading fast and needed to increase taxes. COntrary to the majority of the tax-payers, after reporting and researching the budget issues over the previous two decades, it became clear to me that the politicians who robbed peter to pay Paul had done greater damamge for the town than the tax increases would have.
That to me is what a good journalist should be able to do. Put aside their own biases and personal beleifes to evaluate the facts and events in front of them.
It doesn't always happen, but to do otherwise means we can never decide what the hard questions are and force politicos to answer them.

Posted by: Ray at October 26, 2003 4:09 PM | Permalink

Wow. Thanks for that testimony, showing again how infinitely complicated the real life of a jounalist is compared to our categories and abstractions. Worth a second read.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 26, 2003 5:34 PM | Permalink

I think it's true that many times, the press critics accuse bias where there isn't any but Jay intereprets that to mean that everyone should just stop criticizing at all. And that's his bias. He's obviously a liberal (as was obvious from his linking to the totally nonstatistical and name-calling Eric Alterman book) who's upset that leftwing criticism of the press is losing the war of ideas.

I have little use for anecdotal evidence gleaned from a couple of reports here and there as the bloggers usually do. But if you look at the studies done by FAIR (see here) and compare them done by groups pointing out liberal bias (see here, or here), you'll find that FAIR often relies on twisted logic such as arguing that the Brookings Institution is not liberal, or looking at extremely small periods of time. Studies alleging liberal bias (more here or here) usually rely on longer time periods and much larger sample sizes.

However, as Tim Graham points out in his response (linked above), it's also true that the left-wing critics are correct in some points. But what most fail to realize is that on the political spectrum, much of the American press is decidedly left of center, however it is not radical by any means. But not being radical doesn't by any stretch mean conservative.

I think the only way to ensure both liberal and conservative points of view can be heard in the same outlet is to have a sort of affirmative action policy. Obviously it's wrong to ask someone's beliefs before hiring her but any editor can tell if his employees are predominantly of one political persuasion and act accordingly when recruiting time comes around.

That idea would be greeted by most conservatives with derision but that's one reason why I call myself a conservative liberal.

Posted by: Matthew W. Sheffield at October 26, 2003 7:14 PM | Permalink

Hey, what about our site? We have a "spin of the day" section:

--Sheldon Rampton
Editor, PR Watch

Posted by: Sheldon Rampton at October 27, 2003 2:50 PM | Permalink

Now I would love to know what participants here think of this, by Brian C. Anderson:

"The Left’s near monopoly over the institutions of opinion and information—which long allowed liberal opinion makers to sweep aside ideas and beliefs they disagreed with, as if they were beneath argument—is skidding to a startlingly swift halt. The transformation has gone far beyond the rise of conservative talk radio, that, ever since Rush Limbaugh’s debut 15 years ago, has chipped away at the power of the New York Times, the networks, and the rest of the elite media to set the terms of the nation’s political and cultural debate."

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 27, 2003 9:12 PM | Permalink

What about the bias inherent in the ideological map used to determine bias in the first place?

So far, everyone in this discussion who has discerned a bias terms it "conservative" or "liberal," as though these are the only two categories; as though they automatically conflict; as though they cover all of the opinions worth formulating.

Many here have talked of the sins of "both sides," feeding into the idea that there are only two sides. Apparently these have been so well defined that they need no further elaboration.

This indicates a powerful bias, usually invisible to the writer, in favor of the narrow left-right, liberal-conservative political spectrum as conventionally defined - and against any fundamental questioning of what issues really matter, and how these issues are to be framed.

One writer above laments that when he asks a roomful of j-students how many of them support Bush, only a few raise their hands, indicating a liberal bias on the whole.

However, the question itself confirms the validity of the Bush/Gore opposition.

What if he had asked these students how many of them thought the election was a narrowed-down choice between the two best fundraisers within a corrupt two-party collusion - a duopoly?

How many would even understand the question, let alone raise their hands to affirm this opinion from another planet?

Is it not a form of bias to think we live in a democracy - i.e., that the choices offered by the present political system actually correspond to the issues that matter?

What about the possibility that "conservative" and "liberal" conflict in the same way that two baseball teams try to beat each other? The outcome differs from game to game, but the rules of baseball remain the same. Yet baseball is only part of the world.

Do we ever leave the ballpark?

Posted by: Nick at October 29, 2003 5:26 PM | Permalink

Accurate and intelligent analysis, Nick. It's true that bias debates feature a taken-for-granted political "spectrum" that refracts everything through a single conservative/liberal opposition-- which increasingly may not apply.

I borrowed these conventional categories for my post on media bias because I was criticizing convention--and the ritualized quality of the discussion. Your comment here shows the bias in the way we typically talk about bias.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 29, 2003 6:41 PM | Permalink

Some thoughts, not to be confused with an essay:

The most powerful bias is the centrist bias, the one that deludes itself into thinking it approaches the truth by taking an average between the conventional definitions of left and right. How often do you read this cliche: conservatives say this, liberals say that, so the truth must be somewhere in between.

Centrist bias accommodates the self-image that most reasonable people want to cultivate: I'm moderate. I'm sober. I'm open. I listen to all sides. I make my own judgements.

And what if the truth is actually twelve feet above the one-axis spectrum, with most of it running along a different dimension altogether? Never mind! How are we going to communicate that and still sell papers?

The centrist bias is a function of the objectivity bias.

Example of objectivity bias:

White House press release: Bush Walks In the Sky!

Reporter's observation: Bush walking on the ground, in the conventional way.

New York Times headline: President Seen Perambulating at Moderate Altitude.

In most cases, I submit, the true objectivity lies in the reporter staying true to his own observations.

One definition of bias, probably the most common one, is when a reporter relies consistently on one source, without getting "an opposing view."

However, this is often not so much bias as a professional necessity. Reporters live off their exclusive sources, especially the kind of sources who are nestled in high positions. (This also applies to many liberal reporters like, say, Seymour Hersh or David Corn.) They upset these sources at the risk of losing their exclusive line, and hence their guaranteed publication. Sometimes you're just stuck being a mouthpiece. It's close to a structural necessity; for example, if you've got the Pentagon beat.

A better definition of bias is when a reporter twists his own observations to fit his ideology.

No reporter can avoid having an ideology. The best personal ideological constructs are flexible enough to accommodate contradictory facts; but they should not be bent against the reporter's own sincere observations simply in order to keep up the appearance of objectivity (centrist bias). You become a liar (succumb to structural bias) when you fail to call the spade that you indeed believe to have seen.

Bias is not only personal; it is also structural. Some of the writers above have at least noted that. This is why the one who complains that very few j-students supported Bush is off the point. (Does he expect the school has an obligation to make sure it has recruited as many Republican applicants as Democrats? If the Republican students prefer a discipline other than journalism, is this the fault of the j-students? Should the class require one-half the students to convert?)

At any rate - and here comes what some may call my bias - the likelihood that most press people don't like Bush fails to explain why the press floated him for so long, built him up, found every excuse for him. The structure that favors the centrist bias does, however. Reporters who didn't like Bush still went out of their way to cover for his administration's enormous complex of lies and contradictions, out of a misguided sense of fairness. (Now that the market has turned a little bit, we might see acknowledgement of a fraction of the lies his administration has gotten away with.)

My conclusion: Most of these j-students, in their later careers, are guaranteed to eschew their personal biases in favor of the structural ones, if they want to get ahead. They may enter as liberal crusaders, they will be disciplined into polite tellers of "both sides of the story."

Last observation: The ones who have screamed loudest and longest about bias are on what is called the right wing. They have done so despite a long series of political and cultural victories, and have successfully moved the centrist bias far further to the right than it was 30 years ago. To maintain credibility, the liberal media spend much of their air in bashing "the liberal media."

Damper on hope: the ideological dominance may shift all over the map, but the underlying reality that the simple and reassuring story sells best is not going to go away. These metadiscussions on the true nature of bias are for j-classes and intellectual blogs, they will not be seen in too many opinion columns soon.

Posted by: Nick at October 30, 2003 4:35 AM | Permalink

Nick writes: "Centrist bias accommodates the self-image that most reasonable people want to cultivate: I'm moderate. I'm sober. I'm open. I listen to all sides. I make my own judgements."

I think this is profoundly true. "The truth is probably somewhere in between," which I *have* heard a thousand times, has deep psychological appeal, since it stands for reasonableness; and this will still be so after we account for all the cases where the cliche is apt.

And I would add that among journalists there are few creatures more laughable than the "true believer." This is rather ideological of them, but it is experienced by the mainstream press as anti-ideological. Why was religion for so long the worst covered area of American life, per unit of influence in American life? (This has been changing for the better, by the way.) One answer would be: Because mainstream journalists do not handle belief well. Is that a bias? You bet it is.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 31, 2003 2:37 AM | Permalink

Others have sort of said this, but here's my perspective from 14 years as a reporter. I'm biased, and I'm supposed to be biased. I paid to be a professional skeptic who questions everything and everyone. Some days I do that better than others. The real question, however, is whether my reporting is politically or ideologically biased.
Sometimes it has been. No doubt it will be again. I've learned that one of the hardest things to do in this profession is to adequately question someone you tend to agree with. Ironically, some of these people are the ones who thought I was biased against them. Disagreeing with the other sides in a story, I questioned them, pushed them to make good defenses of their positions while lobbing softballs at the person or persons I tended to agree with. Consequently, when it came time to write the stories, I had strong, good quotes from the people I disagreed with and nothing but mild stuff from the people I agreed with.
Of course, it doesn't have to work that way. I have seen people in this business who do everything they can to weaken or raise doubts about people they disagree with while ignoring evidence in their favor. Sometimes I've seen people do this out of personal animus, and sometimes out of ideology. At the same time, they try to make the people they agree with look as good as they can. In effect, they become their PR agents.
The people who raise questions about reporter bias, regardless of their own motivations, do the public and the press a service. Sometimes when I've been accused of bias, I've had to admit that I failed to do an adequate job of questioning someone. Other times, I've been able to demonstrate that I treated all sides with equal skepticism. In either case, the knowledge that there are people out there willing to raise questions about my reporting keeps me alert, keeps me questioning how well I'm doing as a professional skeptic. It's not a dumb debate. It's a very useful one that, like the give and take of politics in a democratic society, should never end.

Posted by: Brian Bowling at November 2, 2003 5:48 PM | Permalink

From the Intro