May 22, 2004
PressThink's Questions and Answers about Media Bias
I don't think "unbiased journalism" is a particularly noble or desirable thing. The Q and A explains why...
You have said (here) that you prefer to leave “bias” criticism to others. Why is that? You don’t believe there’s bias in the news media? You don’t see it yourself?
Of course I see it. To me, any work of journalism is saturated with bias from the moment the reporter leaves the office—and probably before that—to the edited and finished product.
There’s bias in the conversation our biased reporter has with his biased editor, bias in the call list he develops for his story, bias in his choice of events to go out and cover, bias in the details he writes down at the event, bias in his lead paragraph, bias in the last paragraph, bias when his editor cuts a graph. The headline someone else writes for him— that has bias. There’s bias in the placement of the story. (No bias in the pixels or printer’s ink, though.)
Bias, bias, bias. Yes, I see it. I see it everywhere. I often disagree with those who see it only somewhere in the press. Bias against Bush. Bias against the anti-war Left. Bias against believing Christians. They don’t go far enough, in my opinion.
“Bias, bias, bias.” Isn’t that a way of trivializing the question?
No, I don’t think it is. Mine is just another way of saying that human judgment tells you what to do in journalism— not god or the rule book or the facts. That’s not a trivial point: journalism is saturated with judgment, and a lot of that judgment belongs to the individual journalist.
The trouble arises (and this is the whole reason we have the bias debate) because American journalists some time ago took refuge in objectivity, and began to base their authority on a claim to have removed bias from the news. This claim was not just hot air. It corresponded to things journalism did.
Things like what?
Well, to give you the compressed version… First journalism removed the political party from influence in the newsroom. Then it removed, as much as possible, the publisher and his pro-business mentality. Then it removed the political opinions of its own people. Then it removed the community— local bias, if you will. Then it removed the public because it had polls instead, and they were more objective.
At each step in these strategic removals, the justification was objectivity: producing more unbiased news. And in this way the press wound up basing its authority—the professional journalist’s bid for public trust—on the claim to have mastered the removal of bias. When actually, they just kicked everyone else out.
Well, you can be better at it than anyone else—total bias removal—and still be pretty bad. Why? Because journalism is saturated with judgment. Good journalism is.
So sometimes the press claims to be dependable because it is said to have mastered something it is actually very bad at— “curing” the news of bias. But then anyone would be terrible at that. So the reason I leave bias criticism to others is that I don’t think “unbiased journalism” is a particularly noble or desirable thing. It’s not my ideal. Nor do I see it as humanly possible.
That it’s not possible to be totally objective— we get that. But still: don’t we want journalists who are as unbiased as possible? Don’t you?
People say that. I almost never believe them. The appetite for factual truth when it conflicts with fixed views is extremely small when compared to other appetites that do get expressed. Everyone forgets this. Ironically, journalists know it very well. Online, of course, this appetite seems even smaller.
In any case, if we do want unbiased journalism we should not. We should want journalists who show good judgment.
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…
Questions and Answers About PressThink.
Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate, part one. (PressThink’s questions for bias hunters.)
Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate, part two (Answers to part one.)
No, Media Bias Is Not a Dumb Debate, Says Bias Hunter (Tim Graham of the Media Research Center responds from the Right.)
Has Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate? A Man of the Left Responds to PressThink’s Questions (Brian Dominick of the New Standard from the Left.)
The View From Nowwhere.
Roger Simon, novelist and weblogger, comments on this post: “… journalism is saturated with bias and that is a good thing. In fact, I would go further — it’s completely irrelevant whether it is good or bad anyway because it is bred in the bone. Journalism is created by biased creatures — humans. One of the advances in knowledge these days is that most of us finally realize institutions like The New York Times are not ex cathedra authorities, but just somebody’s idea of the truth — ultimately the publisher’s.” (And see the comments section too)
Peter Levine comments on bias criticism:
For my own part, I can’t figure out how to assess charges of left-wing or right-wing bias in the press. There’s too much diversity in the coverage, and the political spectrum is too poorly defined today. I do detect a disturbing set of professional biases in favor of ….
- conflict rather than consensus
- deficits rather than assets
- political strategy rather than policy
- motives of political actors rather than quality of decisions
- campaigns rather than government
- federal government rather than states
- government rather than civil society
- the US rather than the rest of the world
Andrew Cline of Rhetorica responds to PressThink (May 24):
I modify “bias” with “structural” to speak of the frames of thought that I believe are far more important to understanding journalistic behavior than the “bias” many call “political.” All choices are political to one extent or another, so “political” is hardly modification at all. To insist on partisan political bias (“the press is liberal” or “the press is conservative”), to take one of these sides to the exclusion of contrary evidence, is to engage in partisan struggle for rhetorical and political purposes.
Editor of the Seattle Times, Mike Fancher, in a Sunday column: “Complaints about political bias in The Seattle Times seem to be at record levels, and they keep coming from all directions.” (May 23)
Posted by Jay Rosen at May 22, 2004 6:00 PM
We all operate within mental structures. It's inevitable. Whenever we receive facts, they are catalogued within the structures we already have.
Statistics, too, are biased, because they are based on a human process: Someone wrote the questions, someone asked them - in a tone of voice, and people are generally forced to answer within a preset structure.
Full disclosure here. It's a false email to protect me from Nigerian scams.
Maybe this all goes back to a "belief" in science as able to supply answers, when physics tells us that even at the subatomic level, the observer changes the structure of what is observed! Every fact, every observation, every effort to explain inevitably changes the face of "reality."
To me good journalism takes the facts and puts them in context. Naturally, different journalists will see the facts according to their differing mental structures. So it is interesting to see how the emerging facts in any story are construed by different people. And of course as the news is disseminated, it changes the very events which it tries to report. This cannot be avoided. But also needs to be reported as well.
One of the things that I noticed for a while last week was that the news cycle related to the Iraq prison scandal was so fast that the news began to consist of more and more facts being put out there without the requisite context being supplied. And I was left to wonder, gee, doesn't that new fact contradict something I think I read or heard a few days back? Sure enough, a few days later someone put those things together and suddenly it was clear that things were even darker than they had appeared, when "just the facts" were out there - minus the context.
As a layperson, I appreciate it when people with the ability to dig into background provide that for me. When that does not happen with certain issues or when things seem to be omitted that I already know about, then it's my responsiblity as a reader or viewer to bring that to somebody's attention. Even now there are issues related to the abuse scandal that have not been dealt with to my satisfaction. And I can only hope that somewhere, someone is digging into things based on my pleas for them to do so. (I wonder if one day we will have a way for people to post missing stories, like a missing person's list but for the news?)
I agree with your statement that "we want journalists who show good judgment." With regard to the scandals emerging related to Iraq etc., I am suddenly appreciative of certain writers with whom I often disagree politically, but whose reasoning with regard to what is going on strikes me as sound and helpful. I have indeed sent emails to several people commending them and acknowledging my own background, so that they can see their writing is appreciated across a spectrum.
I certainly applaud you here, Jay, for what you are doing to shine a light back onto the work you participate in. And thanks for allowing "public" participation!
Two, any discussion on this topic is helped by acknowledgement of the father of professional journalism, Walter Lippmann, and his social engineering motives. As Christopher Lasch has so brilliantly observed, the decline in participation in the political process in this country is directly tied to the rise in the so-called "professionalization" of the press.
Could not professionalization of the press also be tied into the professionalization of all professions throughout society and a resulting loss of trust in more than just our partisan political system?
I find that writing objectively makes the most sense when problems are complex, mostly because it helps tease out the issues in my own mind. Thanks for cohering something I've experienced!
I've been meaning to ask you a question on media bias for awhile, and this gives me an opportunity. On both the left and the right, the idea of bias is used to justify ideological positions and revert to a solipsistic worldview that cannot be disproven. That is, if there's bad news in Iraq, it's only because the media is liberal, or if there's good news in Iraq, it's only because the media is shilling for the administration.
How does the institution of journalism defend itself from these attitudes? I find the biases in the media natural, but the lack of awareness of these biases on the part of (usually older) journalists themselves quite appalling. It's like journalists are trying to deny their humanity as a play to appropriate more power.
The result of this attitude seems to be a long-term weakening of the public's appreciation for journalistic integrity, and thus more sensitivity on the part of the public towards well-funded partisan propagandizing.
I have penned an open letter for a newspaper to start a 'smear beat' as an institutional defense against this charge, because the inevitable resulting smears on all sides bear remarkably similar patterns and are calculated to influence the press specifically. What do you think?
Matt: I think you put it very well with: "if there's bad news in Iraq, it's only because the media is liberal, or if there's good news in Iraq, it's only because the media is shilling for the administration." This is one of the bigger problems with the media bias debate.
When distorted readings of the press accompany charges of distortion in the press, you're going to have a distorted and quite disorienting debate. We passed that point long ago on the subject of media bias. That is why I am not a regular participant in that discourse, but rather a student of it, and I try to be conversant with its terms, ideas and people.
"How does the institution of journalism defend itself from these attitudes?" Well, this is one reason we have such a defensive press. Also one reason journalists tune out a lot of criticism, which in my view has been a mistake.
In fact, many sociologists who have studied the way journalists make decisions have agreed that a crucial factor (not the crucial factor, just one of them) is protection-seeking behavior in a newsroom; that is, journalists write and present the news in a way that gives them some refuge from the instant criticism they are always vulnerable to because the news, even when accurate, is daily, rushed, a "first draft," approximate in its truthfulness, and open to criticism from everyone. News also tends to be something people argue fiercely about, as well they should.
Protection-maximizing behaviors are well known in journalism and openly discussed. For example, get an expert to say something and quote her, rather than assert it on your own authority. Is it artificial? Absolutely. A broad opening for bias and "spin" to enter in? Yes. It's not a very good use of experts, either. But there's just more refuge in doing that way, so they do it that way.
Sometimes what seems inexplicable, outrageous--or just dumb--about news stories is clearer if we assume that journalists are seeking refuge as much as they are seeking news. One of the consequences, of course, is pack journalism- a far bigger problem, in my view, than ideological commitments or leanings among journalists.
Of course this happens in all occupations. It's called Cover Your Ass-- CYA. Except that in journalism your ass is hanging out more, and you're out there every day, reporting on things that are by nature controversial, and a lot of what you do cannot be defended except through some workplace logic like the deadline's reporter's practical motto: "go with what you got."
Makes perfect sense in a newsroom. As an explanation to the public--"sorry, we went with what we had"--it is not quite as convincing.
i'm a consumer, only, but i consume news from a wide variety of national & international sources, and here's my take.
the conversation that starts with 'bias' and/or 'corruption' masks the more corrosive weakness' in/of the press: sloth&indolence, arrogance, knee-jerk defensiveness, incompetence and distrust of the citizenry to synthesize complex data into a continuum.
as example that touches most of the above bases: by near-universal agreement, everybody accepts 'the press' does a lousy job with even the most modest stories about: science, tech, finance, economics, military affairs ... none of which are all that hard to gain a fifth-grader's baseline of the subject - which is sufficient for most stories. reporting from uncured ignorance is an insult.
i have never been overly impressed with the '1st draft approximating the truth' argument/excuse *especially when the '1st draft' lacks context and perspective, but *always contains conclusions and analysis. if i ever saw a '2nd draft', perhaps i would feel somewhat differently. (note: spelling names correctly in the 'corrections box' does not constitute a '2nd draft.)
i have no clue where the idea that a story *must contain 'what it all means'(especially from those ignorant of the basis of the story, as above), but that is a direct, personaal insult to the customer. does this come from j-school, jay? or is it perhaps from when journalism ceased being a 'trade' and became a 'profession'?
on a related tangent, i noted with both dismay and disgust the level and quantity of criticism about the lack of analysis - by working journalists - of woodward's book. shame.shame.shame.
still, there are a lot of good journalists out there (as defined by me) who: pound all the 'w' into the first three grafs, provide perspective & context, go light & conservative on the analysis, and let me know they are dipping-up only a cup of 'truth' - but it is only a 'cup' and there is a lot more 'truth' still left in the bucket; woodward, dana priest, britt hume and robin wright come to mind.
there are others, but they are thinly spread.
I find this site entirely fascinating. It took me a while to figure out what it reminded me of, but it finally came to me: the Far Side cartoon of lemmings rushing to the sea, with one wise guy wearing a swim ring.
Fascinating as a train wreck. Here we have a whole group of highly intelligent people driving directly toward disaster, congratulating one another about how well they are performing in doing the Right (or, rather, Left) Thing and how badly their critics have misinterpreted and misunderestimated them.
Brian Dominick: "Yet the Right is screaming bloody murder that the media are not reporting every case of the US Army Corps of Engineers rebuilding a school (that the US bombed), or providing medicine to the Iraqi people (quietly prevented for 12 years under sanctions), etc."
No; he later upbraids a commenter for lack of reading comprehension, throwing stones in his own glasshouse. What I, in particular, and I think Patterico from a different viewpoint, complain about is more like a grasp of physics than anything comprehending the word "bias." Mr. Dominick lives in a world where the Sun rises in the East; things fall down; and every cracked window and skinned elbow in Iraq can be laid directly at the feet of George Bush, who ordered one of his Myrmidons to break something or hurt someone. Trouble is, that last is a lie, a whole lie, and nothing but a lie -- but because it's part of Mr. Dominick's physics, anything he writes will conform to that physical law, and end up looking as ridiculous as the street person who mutters that stones would float if we only believed.
Similarly, part of the physics of Mr. Dominick's Universe has it that every child who missed a meal or contracted sniffles under sanctions can be explained by the Right's insistence that the Proletariat's faces be ground into the dirt of the road. It therefore follows that the legions who were stuffing their faces (and wallets) with both hands with the proceeds of having denied Iraqi children their food and medicine -- simply do not exist; they cannot; entropy always increases. And it follows as the day the night that such stories cannot be considered "newsworthy."
Bias is inevitable, as stated here. The journalist is human, and therefore has opinions, preconceptions, and a certain worldview made up of those. I cannot and do not object to anyone, journalist or otherwise, interpreting events in the light of their bias in this sense; and, to the extent that I find such things objectionable today it is primarily due to the fact that consolidation has reduced the number of alternate voices available to consumers. What I do object to, and that strongly, is having to depend on people whose preconceptions and prejudices are so deep that events not contemplated by that worldview simply do not occur, are not observed (and therefore not reported on) because their pseudophysics will not allow them to exist.
Mr. Rosen's contention that the search for objectivity is a cause, perhaps a primary cause, of this situation is interesting and thought provoking. At first glance I think he might be right. Certainly the profession of journalism seems to be moving toward the same caricature it attempts to apply to politics, in which it can be stated that anyone who knows enough about any subject to comment intelligently is conclusively disqualified for office on the grounds of conflict of interest. ("It's all about oil! Halliburton!" etc. etc.) It ultimately means that journalism becomes incestuous, a matter of reporting what other reporters are reporting and critiquing their viewpoints and presentation -- and gets farther and farther from anything that might imply impingement of matters from some other field upon their little self-contained world. Which would be fine, except that there are events outside that microcosm that affect us -- and them -- and knowledge of them would be useful if available.
"If we do want unbiased journalism we should not. We should want journalists who show good judgment."
As someone who sees truth on both sides of the debate over political bias in the news, I am inclined to agree with the idea that total objectivity is both impossible and, to a certain extent, not desirable. However, if you believe that bias is unavoidable, I think at the very least you should ask that journalists be more upfront and acknowledge their own biases.
As a journalist, it is an insult to the intelligence of one's audience to insist that one has no bias or insist, as Lesley Stahl once did that she "had my opinions surgically removed once I became a reporter."
Many journalists believe Fox News has this problem to a certain extent (I agree), but as that recent poll conducted by the Pew Center for People and the Press revealed, most big-time journalists have the same problem as well.
I do disagree with you, however, that political bias is something with which journalists should not concern themselves. While it is true that no one can ever write from a completely neutral perspective, it is very possible that the most egregious forms of bias (be they personal, political, socio-economic, religious, racial, sexual) can be eliminated through effective diversity regimens.
Thankfully most news orgs realize this in the case of race and sex, I would hope, though, that more would be sensitive to political, religious and cultural biases. It really isn't too much to ask. Nor is it too difficult to implement.
Matthew: First, I agree with Perry Parks that while objectivity is not a very good guide for journalists, the notion of "fairness" is.
He adds, smartly: "Not the kind of fairness wherein for every Hannity you have a Colmes, but the kind of fairness where, regardless of the journalist's personal feelings, he or she can judge a piece of reporting on whether all the important points of view have had a legitimate chance to change minds."
Diversity in mainstream journalism is desirable, and perhaps even essential, but two things hamper it. One is a narrow definition of diversity: race, ethnicity, gender count big; such factors as social class, political ideology, religion, region do not.
But the larger problem is the philosophical incoherence of the diversity project in journalism, made worse by the fact that most journalists are terrible at philosophy and think it has nothing to do with the practical demands of being a journalist. Here's what I mean:
Journalists hired to diversify the newsroom are brought on board in the belief that many different perspectives are needed to provide a full and fair news report. But the doctine of objectivity says it's a no-no to bring the perspective of "your people"--your class, party, religion, group--into news judgments.
Therefore there is a deep philosophical conflict between the logic of diversity efforts, which value the view from somewhere, and the "view from nowhere" that still rules in the newsroom. Since journalists don't "do" philosophy very well, they just let the problem sit there. Which is why, despite a lot of good faith hiring, the news hasn't changed much as a result of the diversity project in the press.
To me, it's a perfect example of what panopticon means by incoherence.