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What should journalists do about their bias?

 
 
Reply Thu 4 Mar, 2010 06:25 pm
Listened to a report on Gay Marriage in Washington and Catholic Charities, on NPR. It was pretty clear that the reporter viewed the issue in terms of civil rights, and, at least, leaned towards support rather than opposition.

I'm sure that some who heard the same report will argue that the reporter was a paragon of objective journalism, but that would be silly.

Listening to the report though, made me think of journalists in the 60's who were reporting on the Civil Rights movement.

I was a kid at the time and I thought it was pretty clear that those who argued for Civil Rights were right and those who opposed them were wrong, but I couldn't tell you whether the reporting was biased. I suspect it was for a number of reasons, and in retrospect I can appreciate why it might have been.

Anyone supporting the movement was on the right side of morality and history, and if the majority of Americans, at the time, didn't think so, the major changes we saw would not have happened.

It's easy though to forget or ignore the context of the time. Civil Rights was not unanimously supported and while much of the opposition was motivated by racism and the desire to preserve power, such motivations were not universal among opponents.

A truly objective reporter at the time would have reported all the reasons for opposition and not defaulted to an implication that all opponents were racists. I don't know if any such reporters operated at the time. I doubt they did and I don't necessarily blame the media of the day if they did not.

I'm not willing to concede that reporters (whether then or now) possess an unerring moral vision or a unique ability to predict how history will play out and so while journalists who practiced their profession with a bias in favor of the Civil Right movement were on the side of morality and historical inevitability, that doesn't mean that their bias will always hold true and virtuous nor that their profession doesn't rightly demand a degree of detachment that is not expected of the average citizen.

So how should journalists address their personal biases?

To argue they have none is absurd; clearly they do, the question, it seems to me is whether or not they should ply their craft in alignment with their biases or make an extra-ordinary effort to set aside their personal biases and aspire to absolute objectivity.

I suppose if one doesn't believe that journalism is a profession subject to a code of ethics designed to advance a particular ideal, then the question is moot, but the vast majority of journalists believe it is.

The only thing that can make the smug superiority of professional tolerable is a committed adherence to their profession's ideal and an almost obsessive desire to comply with the collectively agreed upon ethics of that profession.

So while the ethics of the legal profession may sometimes conflict with what the common man might perceive as ethical, a very convincing argument can be made that for the lawyer, acting as lawyer, professional ethics trump what might constitute the societal ethics of the day.

Is objectivity a fundamental component of the journalistic ethos, and if it is wouldn't we expect that for the most ethical of journalists it would be virtually impossible to detect a personal bias in their reporting?

I'm sure it's hard to be objective when reporting on a subject about which you feel very strongly, but it's also quite hard to provide a winning defense to a low life client whom you are sure is guilty, or heroic medical care to save the life of someone whose death would benefit the world.

I would suggest that for those who consider themselves journalists but who cannot sublimate their biases to their profession, that they lead off every article the write, every report they broadcast with an acknowledgment of their bias. They don't need to defend it, but I do think they need to announce it so that none of their readers, listeners, or viewers assume they are conforming to their profession's ethos.

But then journalism may be no more than a faux profession. When doctors and lawyers violate their ethics they are subject to the judgment of their profession and risk being cast from it. Nothing like that happens with journalists.

The Law and Medicine are powerful forces in our society and we are well served by the professional ethics that have been developed and are enforced by their professions. Journalism too is a powerful force in our society and while those who call themselves journalists like to pontificate about journalistic ethics, very few of them are true professionals.


 
oolongteasup
 
  1  
Reply Thu 4 Mar, 2010 06:42 pm
@Finn dAbuzz,
Quote:
What should journalists do about their bias?


Compete.
0 Replies
 
Seed
 
  1  
Reply Thu 4 Mar, 2010 06:52 pm
@Finn dAbuzz,
I was thinking on this subject the other day. I feel that when it i some thing that that reporter has strong feelings about that they will be hard pressed to keep any lean out of their writings or telecast. Though then again that can be said about anyone. If you feel passionately about anything it will show through in what you do.

OCCOM BILL
 
  3  
Reply Thu 4 Mar, 2010 08:02 pm
@Finn dAbuzz,
Finn dAbuzz wrote:
I'm sure it's hard to be objective when reporting on a subject about which you feel very strongly, but it's also quite hard to provide a winning defense to a low life client whom you are sure is guilty, or heroic medical care to save the life of someone whose death would benefit the world.
I doubt many doctors even encounter an opportunity to deliberately fail to save the life of someone whose death they think would benefit the world. Lawyers, on the other hand do... but also know only too well that "The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened." Frankly, I think this applies to the issue that was being reported on when your bias question occurred to you. While I would agree the conscientious reporter would do well to highlight the non-bigoted arguments, like the centuries old traditional religious interpretations of marriage; I nevertheless think it is indeed a civil rights issue and that the court's will eventually apply the 14th amendment to it very much how they applied it in Loving v. Virginia (though I doubt they'll wait till it's so overdue as to have a unanimous vote.)

I read something to the affect that every time you see an ambulance pass by, a person who opposes gay marriage is dying, or a person who doesn't is about to be born. Expanding on civil rights, IMO, is more of an evolution than a fad of the day.
msolga
 
  1  
Reply Thu 4 Mar, 2010 11:58 pm
@Finn dAbuzz,
Quote:
But then journalism may be no more than a faux profession. When doctors and lawyers violate their ethics they are subject to the judgment of their profession and risk being cast from it. Nothing like that happens with journalists.


Maybe they are in a "faux profession", depending on who they work for.
But you might be dreaming if you actually believe that any journalist is free to express her/his personal political biases, when working for the likes of Rupert Murdoch, for example.
Ceili
 
  1  
Reply Fri 5 Mar, 2010 01:10 am
I just read two articles from a Texan newspaper comparing Canadians to Nazis. There a bias eh!
Setanta
 
  2  
Reply Fri 5 Mar, 2010 05:48 am
Frankly, i don't know where the notion that newspapers (or other such sources, as we now have many) are obliged to be objective comes from. From the earliest days of the proliferation of printed broadsheets (the precursors to newspapers), it has been all about propaganda. Protestant propaganda about the Catholic Church and the Inquisition is the earliest example of this, and in the absence of any response from Rome, was so successful that to this day, people believe that the Inquisition inflicted relentless and uncounted deaths, that priests regularly screw nuns, who then dump their illegitimate babies down wells at night, and that no such horrors were ever attendant upon Protestant practices (totally ignoring the thousands burned as witches). This not only did not change over time, if anything, it got worse. All governments quickly got into the censorship business, so as to promote their versions of "the truth," and their opposition as quickly got into the business of publishing books and pamphlets in other countries for dissemination at home. The notion of censorship in order to reduce or eliminate criticism of the ruling regime was sufficiently common that John Adams attempted it under the auspices of the Alien and Sedition Act in the 1790s. No one in the early American republic thought newspapers were in the business of being journalistic Joe Friday's, looking for "just the facts, Ma'am." People read the intemperate rantings of their favorite editors with relish, and a man's politics were advertised by the newspaper he preferred to read. I rather suspect that the entire idea of journalistic objectivity is a late 20th century scam by which powerful newspaper syndicates attempted to suggest that their particular biases did not, in fact, exist.
Walter Hinteler
 
  2  
Reply Fri 5 Mar, 2010 06:14 am
Actually, the bias starts with selecting the pure facts (=news, story).

djjd62
 
  1  
Reply Fri 5 Mar, 2010 06:21 am
@Setanta,
Setanta wrote:

Frankly, i don't know where the notion that newspapers (or other such sources, as we now have many) are obliged to be objective comes from.


exactly, i wish i knew where more journalist stood on issues, it would make it easier to decide who to listen to or not

i loved it when the guy came out and told tiger woods that he could never find redemption without christianity, i knew then he wasn't a journalist for me, but at least he was being honest to his convictions

engineer
 
  3  
Reply Fri 5 Mar, 2010 06:21 am
@Finn dAbuzz,
There are two parts to the perception of bias, the actual bias of the sender and the actual bias of the receiver. During the civil rights movement, you were biased towards support for the movement. This was probably true for the reporters as well, so you perceived minimal bias. If you were the Grand Poopah of the KKK, you would probably have interpreted the press coverage as amazingly biased. If a reporter produces a piece on a charged issue that is perfectly evenly balanced, I would expect howls from both extreme ends of the issue. I don't think it is possible to produce a reasonably factual report on a contentious issue and have every one agree that it's not biased. Moreover, if you are on one end of the political spectrum on just about every issue, you will likely perceive every report as biased, even if it actually leans slightly in your favor.
spendius
 
  1  
Reply Fri 5 Mar, 2010 06:57 am
@Finn dAbuzz,
Interesting subject Finn.

Quote:
The Law and Medicine are powerful forces in our society and we are well served by the professional ethics that have been developed and are enforced by their professions. Journalism too is a powerful force in our society and while those who call themselves journalists like to pontificate about journalistic ethics, very few of them are true professionals.


I'm not sure everyone would agree with the first sentence of that. I certainly don't. And no respectable Darwinian could find it possible in relation to the medical profession. Psuedo-Darwinians are another matter of course but we needn't detain ourselves with what a load silly psuedos think or say.

You own bias is peeping out there old chap. Both professions should send you a fee for promoting their excellence in that way. Both would appreciate how you nearly slipped one past our guard.

As for journalism, it doesn't work in the national interest, as we perceive it, unless it's a " Devil take the hindmost" melee. Once the consumer of journalism, who is generally much freer than victims of the legal and medical professions in his or her choices, is aware of the Darwinian aspects of the profession then he or she is provided with sufficient information to excercise his or her free choice.

I think the alternative might be compared to reading out a train timetable as we have seen on news broadcasts from countries where totalitarianism is in a more advanced state than is the case here.

It is clear from Origin of Species that ravening wolf types and assholes in general have a reproductive advantage over little lambs and goodie-goodies.

Robert Gentel
 
  1  
Reply Fri 5 Mar, 2010 10:51 am
@engineer,
That's a very good point.
0 Replies
 
roger
 
  2  
Reply Fri 5 Mar, 2010 02:19 pm
@Walter Hinteler,
Exactly. Totally factual reporting can be biased as hell. Then, there is the decision of which events and news will be covered at all.

Still, I think Seed is pretty much on target. It would be difficult to write an unbiased report if the reporter had strong feelings on the subject.
Setanta
 
  1  
Reply Fri 5 Mar, 2010 09:18 pm
@roger,
Indeed . . . and a reporter might not even be aware that he or she was writing with a bias.
0 Replies
 
fbaezer
 
  3  
Reply Fri 5 Mar, 2010 09:49 pm
Good question.
A big part of my job is to make the published news as unbiased as possible.
But then, I have to fight my own bias.

(Thanks to this thread I noticed our Code of Ethics was somehow hidden on our web page, and just ordered to have it more noticeable).
0 Replies
 
fbaezer
 
  1  
Reply Fri 5 Mar, 2010 10:01 pm
@roger,
roger wrote:

Totally factual reporting can be biased as hell. Then, there is the decision of which events and news will be covered at all.



There is no such thing as "totally factual reporting". Every single word is non-factual in itself, even if yu shy away from every single adjective. In a single event, there are things that the reporter notices and things s/he does not.

And of course, there is a decision on what to cover, what to be given full uneven pages, what to be hidden on page 22 and what to make a vacuum at.

On wednesday, there was a report of two presumed children of the founder of a Catholic religious congregation declaring their father sexually abused them. The "factual news" is that they declared so.
The edition under-director and me decided -since it could be a slander and we couldn't reach the congregation for their point of view- to downplay it to the "inside pages". I went home and surprisingly didn't find the note the day after. "Did the General Director call to supress it?", I wondered. Not at all, he said; it was the National editor who "had no space" for it (not because an ideological bias -he's an atheist-, but because he was "sure" it was slander). We told him he made a "journalistically wrong decision".
Most papers published the piece in their "inside pages" (we looked awful not publishing it), but the most left-leaning paper published it as the top news (and they looked awful when the presumed children admitted they had tried to bribe the congregation before going public with the accusation).
0 Replies
 
Finn dAbuzz
 
  1  
Reply Fri 5 Mar, 2010 10:01 pm
@Seed,
Yes indeed, that's precisely my point. It is hard to control one's bias when one feels strongly about a particular topic. I can't imagine that anyone would argue otherwise.

Journalists though, at least in connection with reporting news, consider themselves exceptional, and so while it may be hard not to scream or vomit when viewing a bloody corpse, what experienced journalist doesn't believe he or she is up to the task?

There was a movie back in the early 70's which starred a young Robert Forster and was called "Medium Cool". In it, a News cameraman busily takes film of a car wreck rather than coming to the aid of the injured parties. The cameraman insists that he was remaining true to journalistic ethics and recording rather than becoming part of the story.

This may have even have been referenced in "Medium Cool", but I remember watching "Mondo Cane" as a youth, and feeling not only heart sick over the sea turtles who, due to radiation, couldn't find their way, but anger over the film makers' apparent refusal to help the doomed turtles.

If committed journalists can push past natural instincts to serve an ethos that requires emotional and physical detachment from a real life incident that should trigger an intensely personal reaction, then hiding their bias for a cause, with which they strongly empathize, should not be all that tough.

Just about every journalist I have heard speak on the topic insists there are journalistic ethics, and I think we can agree that whether or not there actually is an ethos established, promoted and guarded by the profession, journalists believe there is.

So want does the ethos call for?

Detachment of the like seen in "Medium Cool," and "Mondo Cane?"

If such detachment is to be sought and can be achieved, how much easier should objectivity be?

I recently read an article that addressed the journalistic ethos of detachment as respects to reporters in Haiti who happened to be MDs. The article actually suggested that there was an ethical argument relative to physician-reporters providing care to the subjects of their reports.

The only argument I could countenance was the one that suggested the Reporter-MDs were caring for their subjects to increase their ratings.

If you truly believe that journalists cannot be expected to set aside their personal biases when reporting on subjects for which they have an emotional response, then you clearly fall within the camp that asserts journalists have no professional ethics and, therefore, are not members of a profession.

I doubt you will find many journalists who agree with you, but your basic premise leads you, inevitably, to such a conclusion.



0 Replies
 
Finn dAbuzz
 
  1  
Reply Fri 5 Mar, 2010 10:14 pm
@OCCOM BILL,
OCCOM BILL wrote:

Finn dAbuzz wrote:
I'm sure it's hard to be objective when reporting on a subject about which you feel very strongly, but it's also quite hard to provide a winning defense to a low life client whom you are sure is guilty, or heroic medical care to save the life of someone whose death would benefit the world.
I doubt many doctors even encounter an opportunity to deliberately fail to save the life of someone whose death they think would benefit the world. Lawyers, on the other hand do... but also know only too well that "The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened." Frankly, I think this applies to the issue that was being reported on when your bias question occurred to you. While I would agree the conscientious reporter would do well to highlight the non-bigoted arguments, like the centuries old traditional religious interpretations of marriage; I nevertheless think it is indeed a civil rights issue and that the court's will eventually apply the 14th amendment to it very much how they applied it in Loving v. Virginia (though I doubt they'll wait till it's so overdue as to have a unanimous vote.)

I read something to the affect that every time you see an ambulance pass by, a person who opposes gay marriage is dying, or a person who doesn't is about to be born. Expanding on civil rights, IMO, is more of an evolution than a fad of the day.



It really is immaterial (to this discussion) whether or not the issue originally referenced can actually find its roots in civil rights.

I've no interest in arguing whether or not "Gay Rights" are virtuous - at least not in this thread, and , at this juncture, really couldn't care less about your predictions or the predictions of journalists as respects the historical outcome of "Gay Rights."

That's one of my points.

While those of us who respect O'Bill's opinions might factor them in their consideration of the subject, none of us consider him a journalist.

Actually, I am more interested in your predictions than anyone who assumes the mantle of "journalist," but then you are not trying to cop an elite status - as "Journalists" do.

The issue in question has nothing to do with Gay Rights. It could just as easily have centered on "ObamaCare," "Afghanistan," or "Job Creation."



0 Replies
 
dlowan
 
  1  
Reply Fri 5 Mar, 2010 10:17 pm
@Finn dAbuzz,
First step is becoming aware of one's bias...
0 Replies
 
Finn dAbuzz
 
  1  
Reply Fri 5 Mar, 2010 10:18 pm
@msolga,
msolga wrote:

Quote:
But then journalism may be no more than a faux profession. When doctors and lawyers violate their ethics they are subject to the judgment of their profession and risk being cast from it. Nothing like that happens with journalists.


Maybe they are in a "faux profession", depending on who they work for.
But you might be dreaming if you actually believe that any journalist is free to express her/his personal political biases, when working for the likes of Rupert Murdoch, for example.


Thanks for that strictly partisan opinion.

It doesn't advance the discussion of this topic but it does give pause to muse about irrelevancy.
0 Replies
 
 

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