Please join us at

Get the posts on my new blog by e-mail. Enter your e-mail address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

New posts on

Monday, November 26, 2007

How can I ever change things that I feel?

Today's episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: Media bias.

I joined an Internet discussion with other members of my family the other day. The original topic was American politics, but (of course) it quickly morphed into a discussion of media bias.

There are days when I'm really glad that I live in Canada. We have our own political weirdos, of course, but we do not have nearly as many angry pundits or attacks on the media. I follow American media trends, and it seems that there's no way to win: every reporter who doesn't loudly proclaim a right-wing bias is continually accused of having a bias. They can't ALL be biased, and I don't see how they can be biased to the right AND to the left.

I first need to get one thing out of the way: I am about to discuss the non-editorial section of the newspaper. People who write editorials and columns are paid to have opinions. In fact, they're often hired because of their bias. A good newspaper will publish a range of opinions on the left and the right. The reader is expected to know this, but obviously this isn't as clear as it probably should be. In large papers like The Washington Post, there is a literal wall between the editorial and news sections of the paper. In other papers like Name Of Paper Withheld, reporters write editorials. (You tell me if this sounds like a good idea.) The goal is to keep bias out of the news: a noble goal, to be sure.

Nobody ever pretends that reporters don't have opinions. In fact, they ought to have opinions. Ideally, a beat reporter will know everything there is to know about a topic. He or she has met with experts and discussed every possible angle of the issue. He or she should know that whatever the problem is, it has nuances and cannot be summed up in a slogan or in a "The Issue: / We Say:" heap of garbage on the editorial page.

Hmmm. Perhaps MY biases are showing.

The point is that a reporter can't be expected to have no opinions. Much has been made of the fact that as a group, reporters' voting trends skew to the left. (Don't e-mail me to tell me about the conservative reporters you know. I am talking about trends here.) Conservatives scream that this is what happens when communists take control of the media. Liberals scream that this is what happens when people educate themselves about the issues.

I don't worry much about voting trends. Many reporters refuse to vote on principle, believing that they give up this right when they become journalists: it would require them to think about which candidate they want to win, and that could bias their coverage.

Believe it or not, media bias means much more to the media itself than to the average Joe on the street. An accusation of political bias that turned out to have merit would have significant consequences for the reporter and probably for the entire news organization. Reporters cannot afford to open themselves to accusations of political bias, especially if they work for a decent publisher or producer. They would never work again. (Ever hear of Mary Mapes?) If anything, they are expected to bend over backwards to keep political bias out of their coverage.

So I get annoyed when people toss around the word "bias" when they really mean that they didn't like a particular story. You cannot assume bias from a single story or interview. You need a pattern of bias in context before you can even start to suggest that a reporter is biased.

However, I do see a different type of bias that is having a negative effect on news coverage: the laziness bias.

I can already hear some of you scoffing. "YES! They're lazy, so they call their friends at the Obama campaign!" This isn't what I mean at all. I'm talking about all stories that aren't about politics, the sort of story where you aren't looking for bias.

Reporters are taught to write what they know. In general, this is a good idea. However, it means you will only see a small sliver of real life on the news. For example, they might need an expert to talk about women's issues. There are any number of people they could call, but they'll go for the tried-and-true interviewee every time. This person will say exactly the same thing she said the last time she was interviewed.

This is GREAT for the reporter, but does not offer any real benefit to the public. I already know what the tried-and-true expert is going to say, no matter what the issue is. It would be really nice to hear from someone else for a change.

This is where reporters are most biased: when they're rushed for time and need a quote from someone right away. They always know how the tried-and-true expert will fit into the story. They always know that she'll talk, no matter what the issue is. Who has the energy to look for someone new to interview when there's someone just BEGGING to talk about the same old thing over and over?

Now, this is not what most people mean when they say the media is biased. They usually mean that the reporter intends to show one side in a good light and the other side in a bad light.

As always, there are some subtleties here that make it hard for me to say that this isn't true. This is indeed sometimes the goal. For example, perhaps the reporter has dug up some documents that show that one political party has bilked the government out of millions of dollars, paid off political allies and tried to silence the opposition. It would be pretty hard to tell this story without making someone look bad. And no decent editor would allow such a story to see print without at least contacting both sides for comment. As I've tried to explain above, true political bias in the news is rare, at least partly because it would be so obvious that the editor would catch it.

I'm going to give you a handy guide to detecting bias in the media.

  • First, throw out your ideas about bias in favour of a political party.
  • Then pay more attention to the person who is actually quoted in the story. Is it the same person you've heard from over and over? If so, is the person saying anything new, or is it the same old thing?
  • Does the person work for an organization that consistently presents an argument on the left or right of an issue? If so, is he or she presented as the "expert" or as one side of a complicated story?
  • Are there statistics in the story? If so, where do they come from, and how did the statistician compile the numbers?
  • Who is the "expert"? Is he or she legitimately respected as an expert by his or her peers?
  • Who is the victim (also known as the angel)? Does he or she really look like a victim? Is his story realistic? When you think about what he's saying, does it sound plausible, given everything else you know?
  • What are the real motives? Are people speaking in sound bites ("NO BLOOD FOR OIL!") or are they trying to tell the reporter that the issue is complicated ("This isn't about gay marriage. Gay marriage has become the flashpoint, but from our perspective, the true issue is the inerrancy of Scripture. Let me explain what that means.")?
Hmmm. You're right: this is too much work. It would be easier to just continue to say that the media are biased. Carry on.


Anonymous said...

I usually think of "media bias" as more a question of the internal metanarrative that media people have, and into which they plug the facts that they learn.

All facts are interpreted, and will be interpreted by the writer (and indeed everybody else) in the way they are used to interpreting them. This is compounded by laziness, because it takes work to actually think through how an alternative framework would interpret the evidence.

Megan said...

The saddest part is that journalists are supposed to have critical thinking skills.

Anonymous said...

This fits handily with a theory of my own, which says that the chief of sins is not pride, but sloth.

b*babbler said...

Very interesting, and lots to ponder here. Of course, it has made me come up with my own "reader submitted" question.

What do you think about when individuals previously in the media suddenly run for a political election (I'm thinking Peter Kent here, and a former Toronto CityTV reporter who is now in politics but tries to act like here's in media)? Do you think that the coverage of these people can ever be truly unbiased when it is their former colleagues reporting on them? Do you think they do a disservice to the individuals who have trusted their reporting in the past?

Just wondering! :)