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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Pieces of me you've never seen well

Reader-submitted question: Can you please write about media bias?


But before I start, I think it's important to be clear about what media bias is not. Media bias is not criticism, even repeated criticism. And it's not crushes on Obama.

Although repeated criticism can sometimes be a sign of bias, it is not the same thing. For example, a beat reporter might cover environmental issues. She would certainly write stories from time to time that were critical of environmental groups. That does not necessarily make her biased; more likely, it makes her thorough. Of course, she might still be biased (more on this below).

Political reporters are often accused of bias. The people who claim this are usually upset that a candidate or political party they do not like is being made to look much too good. This is the flip side of the situation I've described above: instead of repeated criticism, a reporter is accused of asking too many "softball questions".

Neither of these things are true bias in and of themselves. They can be signs of laziness or sloppiness, and they can even be indications of bias, but you can't just assume that a reporter is biased because he or she didn't press the prime minister hard enough on your pet issue. If the local food critic doesn't like your restaurant's beef stew, that doesn't mean he's biased.

I do not like either sort of accusation of bias. I see most of this in the American political world, but we do get some of it here in Canada. You ought to have real evidence before you claim that a reporter is biased, and it's better if you're not doing it just because you're angry that he published the recipe for your secret blend of herbs and spices. In fact, I am not aware of many situations that I felt showed a true bias on the reporter's part. More often, it is just angry ranting from someone who feels he or she has been treated unfairly.

True bias is much more insidious, and most people don't even notice it.

The true bias in the news industry is laziness. Reporters are people; they sometimes don't realise that the world is much bigger than the tiny part of it they see every day. Stuff White People Like has a series called White People In The News that spoofs this myopia. My father points out that major media organisations report on evangelical Christians as if they were something new, when in reality they are a huge percentage of the American population. But as a reporter, if you don't see evangelical Christians every day, you don't even think about showing them on the news. You might look for a real wacko for a story about, say, Elizabeth Dole's ads about "godless Americans", but you're seeing them as a special-interest group or as an interesting specimen, not as an important part of society. That's bias.

This happens in other ways, too. The tried-and-true expert will always give great sound bites and is always available, so a reporter's going to call him instead of someone else who might have a different perspective but be less accessible. That's bias.

The reporter might see one agency as being a "fringe" group, and another as representing reasonable opinions that she just happens to share completely by coincidence, not because she's pushing her own agenda on the news. Sometimes that's true. But other times, that's bias. I bet the people at Women For Faith & Family have some great opinions on gender parity, but you'll never see them on the news unless it's to talk about a religious issue.

The reporter's also usually trying to get all of the characters in the story to fit a handful of stereotypes. This is not because he's a terrible person, but because he knows the story will be better if it follows a set pattern. He probably doesn't even know he's doing this. And that's bias.

Now, repeated criticism or softballs could be a sign of bias. It's more likely that they're a sign that problems happen again and again (the restaurant's stew AND bread AND steak AND apple crisp are all TERRIBLE! Off with the chef's head!) or that the reporter didn't prepare enough for what should have been a much tougher interview (if you were a tree, what sort of tree would you be?). But it's certainly possible that the reporter actually is biased. I have Bernie Goldberg's book BIAS, which explains some of these things. Now, Bernie himself has been accused of bias, and some of his research for the book was definitely sloppy. But I think his main point is sound: true bias is not intentional, and most journalists would be horrified to discover that their own unexplored biases have crept into their work.

Now, this is all in the context of news reporting. Columnists are paid to have opinions, even biased opinions. A good newspaper will publish a range of opinions on many issues. Don't ask me to condemn Keith Olbermann's biases: they are well known and he's not working as a journalist.

Thanks for your question.


Cindy said...

Thanks for this, Megan, it is a much more clear explanation of bias than I could have done.

MOre later, must go spin. :-)

bec said...

Great post. And another question. Do you currently work in journalism?

Dad said...

"The true bias in the news industry is laziness."

This makes good sense. Don't attribute to malice what is better explained by sloth.

Surveys of journalists and professors of journalism reveal that 90% per cent of them vote Democratic. What do you make of that?

Megan said...

Hmmm. I need to know your source before I can answer your question. Which survey are you referring to?

I can tell you that there is a debate over whether journalists should vote at all.

Dad said...

In 1964, the Democrat got 94% of the press, in 1968, the Democrat got 86%, in 1972 the Democrat got 81% etc., according to the Media Research Center. Of course, the fact of overwhelming Democratic preference in the media does not prove a reporting bias, but it should make you suspicious.
A news outlet in which 90% (or even 60%) of the reporters were Republican would be considered an arm of the Republican Party. Why shouldn't the same principle apply to CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, NYT, etc.?

The Capitalist said...

There is a big difference here, as the problem is when the reporter allows his bias to filter into the news. I often hear of CNN as being a Liberal news outlet. Perhaps some of thier programming is, but thier actual reporting of the news is not. Anderson Cooper may vote Democratic (I don't know) but it sure does not show in his reporting.

Lou Dobbs may be another story as his program is based on his opinions of the news. Much like Bill O'Reilly. I could tell you with much more certainty who Bill votes for than Anderson.

One major problem comes in when people treat Limbaugh's, O'Reilly's, and Dobbs' opinions as the actual news.

I enjoy conservative programming, and agree with the vast majority of what they are saying, but at the end of the day I know it is opinion and not fact.

The legitimate basis of the conservative argument is in the number of stories printed about each party leader, which almost always swings greatly in the favor of the Democrats.

Torq said...

I do think that people are not really taking individual's underlying opinions seriously enough. Sure a reporter can be trained to do a pretty good job of hiding the fact that he/she has an opinion. However, it is not really possible to totally put your opinion to one side.

If you really think that one person, or party, or idea, is truly idiotic, than it is going to come seeping out in your tone, word choice, and even in the nature of your questioning. For instance, I could not be trusted to write an impartial article on Richard Dawkin's use of evolutionary theory. This is because I think that he is absurd. I might try to hide this fact, and because I am a pretty good writer I might even do a good enough job that it is almost unnoticeable. With politics, one's opinion is often a little easier to hide as you might be a supporter of Obama and still not think that McCain is Satan incarnate.

I would argue that this type of "opinion seeping" is a natural part of writing and is unavoidable. The best that we can hope to do is to be aware and open about our own opinions and to write cautiously. An impartial media is an illusion.

Megan said...

I think this is why it's going to be difficult for me to answer this question. If a reporter really thinks that a person, party or idea is idiotic, he should be reassigned.

The Coconut Diaries said...

At the end of the day, isn't it the journalist's job to get people watch their program? Up their ratings? Get you to watch US vs THEM? My cynical tendencies lead me to believe that today information is presented to us in the old "get your kid to eat food by making helicopter noises" methodology. O'Reilly is loud, Cooper is hot, O'Brien is brown... It all fits a market, doesn't it?

Torq said...

Unfortunately the media IS a business, so you do have a point Coconut. I suppose this is why there are more negative stories than positive ones. Negative stories are just better entertainment.

Megan, if a journalist asked to be reassigned whenever he/she has a strong opinion on the issue, wouldn't this leave all the interesting reporting in the hands of those who are lazy or uninterested? Many (though not all) stories really do have a component which should be considered "right or wrong." If a reporter doesn't have an opinion, it is most likely either because he/she is too lazy to have thought about the issue or because he/she is simply not interested in the topic at all. Either way, the interested motivated biased writer (who is trying to not get fired by being too obvious) will probably do a better job!

Megan said...

No, no. Not just a strong opinion: a strong opinion that the journalist knows he can't overcome to write an unbiased story.

Journalists aren't expected to be unthinking or unfeeling. They are expected to put their personal feelings aside when investigating or writing stories, though.

Torq said...

*grins* So Tod (who is totally pro-choice) sees an opportunity to do an article on abortion. You are expecting him to be able to judge whether or not he can overcome his bias? But you have to remember, no one thinks of their own opinions as biases. They are simply rational truths (or we wouldn't believe them now would we?). So he writes an article, which he tries to keep unbiased because he believes in the media.

Now, who is going to be able to see the bias in Tod's story, if there is one? Probably not Tod. If his Editor holds the same opinions, she probably won't notice it either.

If everyone is wearing green glasses, white is going to look green to them. Asking someone else who has green glasses on to double check isn't going to make any difference. The only way to find out what color something really is would be to take off the glasses, and this is the one thing which we cannot do.

Torq said...

It is important to note that if one side of the argument is wearing green glasses, the other is wearing red. So I am certainly no different than Tod. My glasses might just have a different tint.