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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…

Related posts:

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 ….

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