01 April 2008

Biased? Who isn't?

“It’s the liberal media’s fault.”
If I had a dollar for every time I heard this, I wouldn’t have to write for a newspaper for a living. It’s an easy complaint to make – especially when news is reported that is perhaps unsettling or contrary to expectations. However, a blanket statement like this simply isn’t true. FOX News and the New York Post are perfect examples of this.
After years of dwelling "within the beast," I've found the best way to be informed is to get information from a variety of sources. Every day, I check: CNN, BBC, Spiegel (a German news magazine – it’s amazing what the European press can get away with. It makes our system look tame. They can print color photos of war casualties, not to mention nudity), New York Post (they write the best headlines), and the Weekly Standard (possibly the most conservative publication in America - funded by FOX News head Rupert Murdoch).
Any news reporting, despite best efforts, has bias within it. It's something humans cannot avoid. Everyone, despite their best efforts, has experience and opinions. One way to alleviate this is to get news from multiple sources and get "both sides of the picture." It takes time - which is why not many people I know care enough to do it. Most people are happy looking at one source and then blaming the entire media system for bias.
So long as the news is reported by humans, (which, the last time I checked, is the case) there will be bias within it. This is unavoidable, as all humans have a whole lifetime of preferences, experiences and memories from which to base what goes and what doesn’t. For example, if Coke and Pepsi submit press releases on the same day, it’s natural to assume that subliminal preferences will have something to do with choosing which one gets done first. Most journalists I know try to adhere to the idea of “objectivity,” which is the basic idea of not passing judgment either way and going into a story with an open and undecided mind. However, not all journalists adhere to this noble principal.
I’ve learned the hard way about bias. In one college story I wrote about a war protest, I included a line about Republican counter-protesters being nothing more than “a source of amusement.” This, as far as I could tell from the reaction of the war protesters, was true. However, I did not mention that in the article, and did not attribute the statement to any source other than my own opinion. I rightly got called out on the carpet for this. Another occasion where a reader accused me of having a bias was during a town hall meeting a few years ago, where the majority of the people commenting from my coverage area had more liberal sentiments than conservative ones. My mistake was not in reporting this the way I saw it, as it was a factual representation of what I witnessed; my mistake was not saying something along the lines of, “Overall, liberal and conservative comments were about even.”
Fighting bias is much harder than it seems. Our audiences think this is simply a matter of “telling the truth,” which sounds good, but is harder to do in actual practice. What a person determines to be true or false depends greatly on his or her own point of view. In my experience, people like to blame the media for telling them things that either make them uncomfortable or clash with the way they view things "really are." This includes from Global Warming (a favorite target of conservative news outlets) to the Global War on Terror. What is truth? What is falsehood? At this point, it boils down to a philosophical interpretation more than a logical debate.
Yes, bias is ingrained in journalism. It’s something inherent, however muted, in any statement, grandiose or banal, that a human being makes. Bias is journalism's ugly stepbrother, locked in a tower but occasionally escaping and wreaking havoc – perhaps a reminder that the media, the body of which is made up by a human population just as fallible as any other, is sometimes not the flawless machine is strives to be.

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