Friday, April 23, 2004

Journalistic Bias

Rachel of Rachel and the City has a link to a short piece looking at newsroom media bias. It's a short, informative read, but I take exception to some things.

The author basically argues that bias doesn't exist, or if it does it's so complex that everything averages out.
I would first like to point out that the two charges -- news coverage is driven by political bias and news coverage is driven by the profit motive -- are fundamentally incompatible.
This doesn't mean they can't co-exist. It also means there's a constant struggle between the two, the status of which I believe does drive some stories, or lack of coverage of others.

For example, the Commercial Appeal ran a great story the other day about City Councillors taking gifts from local businessmen. It was largely in the context of sports and the lack of a strong law against the practice. Fine, as far as it went. But how about looking into the businessmen who regularly seem to come up when this kind of access and familiarity is discussed? Developers have never been studied in any great detail by the Commercial Appeal, and yet they drive a lot of what happens in our government. Look at County Mayor AC Wharton's sputtering initiatives to "control sprawl."

Why hasn't this happened? I suspect that the fact that developers, and the realtors and builders they work with, are a force not to disturb in a meaningful way. Look at all the advertising they and their related industries buy in the Commercial Appeal. Look at the demonstrated pull they have with our City and County governments, where access and availability is important for the paper to function. Is there a link? I'd like to think not, but how can we know? We should trust a business that is famously resistant to outside scrutiny?
Amazing as it may seem, people get into journalism because they think journalism matters (and that it will be fun). Professional pride plus fear of nasty phone calls keeps them ex-tremely scrupulous about balance and fairness.
Two points here. First, he's saying that journalists self-select for being idealists driven by social concerns. That automatically means bias. Second, how many restaurants have you been in where you've complained to staff and management about the service or food? Has it made the staff or management perform any better? Exactly. They endure, grumble and keep on doing what they've done.

Which leads to another point not covered in the article, but implied in Rachel's post: television newsrooms run at full tilt all the time. There's little enough time to get the job done, much less discuss how to slant it. It takes someone at the top or with a strong will (remember Applegate at WMC?) to grab the rudder and change the direction.

Which to me means that newbies get swept up into the rushing stream with little ability to direct the flow. They have to absorb the culture already existing in that newsroom and make it their own, or they get fired. They have to rely on previous instincts, or instincts taught by the newsroom, to get the job done.

Those instincts will be idealist, social-change-driven ones, and the news will be pressed into the narrative templates, pre-existing formulae, for presenting news that have evolved in the past couple of decades. Take a moment to read Dr. Cline's analysis and discussion about media bias. He presents good questions to ask and good tools to use.

Do I think bias exists? Of course. It's why this blog came into being. I had been reading Jackson Baker's "On Politics" column in the Memphis Flyer and was constantly astounded and angered that he could get away with all the propagandising, slant, rewriting and Democratic agenda-push he did. Someone needed to present a corrective and when I discovered blogging, I did. This blog's name derives from Mr. Baker and his column. The Commercial Appeal had the same effect on me, especially Susan Adler Thorpe and Paula Wade.

I saw an imbalance and a social wrong. I saw self-serving hypocrisy by those who claimed to be for the little guy, and to be fair and impartial. Addressing a wrong was all I wanted to do.

Wait? Doesn't that sound familiar?

Let me close by pointing you to a group of bloggers who have really struck gold. In South Dakota, David Kranz has long been the senior political sage. His paper sets the agenda and his writings are taken by other paper's editors and writers as authoritative. Critics have long accused him of Democratic bias, but since he controls the State's largest paper, where could they go? How could they get through or around the people who were the problem?

With an important election at stake (Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle is in a close re-election race.), they went to the Internet and started blogging. Through careful documentation and link-the-dots writing, all openly presented along with their sources, they have proven their point, to devastating effect. They by-passed the newspapers, the public gatekeepers, and went straight to the people. It's starting to cause an uproar, but more importantly it is demonstrating some fundamental shifts.

Newspapers are losing their gate-keeper status; so are national television networks. The bias of some of the people who work in them (I'll be charitable here.) is being exposed and discussed substantively. This is leading to meaningful calls. Folks who resist are losing credibility; folks who adapt will survive in some new form.

Blogging and Internet discussion are driving this change. People can put sources -- photos, documents, video, on-the-scene reports -- right into the hands of readers, free of editing or other manipulation. Computer space is theoretically unlimited, so now there's no reason not to present full transcripts and whole documents, rather than "documents...that" have been "edited" so that we "don't know" what was actually "said." Removing the opportunity for actual or possible bias through selection or presentation alone would be something to hail.

Readers can get news right now, not when the paper comes out tomorrow, or in television news' mediated/edited version which will also lack substance. You the reader can learn about and chase down related information right now, participate in figuring out what it all means, contribute to the process of winnowing bad information from good. In this way, news doesn't go through a relative few hands that can profoundly alter it, but through numerous hands that can simultaneously multiply the kinds of bias introduced (helping to cancel it out by the end of the process) and spot those alterations (leading to immediate corrections).

In the old world, it was vital to ask "Who watches the watchmen?" They were supposedly self-policing and we the reader were told to trust their assurances of openness, honesty, impartiality and balance. It's the brave new world now. No longer do you passively consume news created by others. You put your critical thinking skills to work and decide what's news to you. We are all the watchmen, with a million eyes watch what we do and a million outlets to speak out. That's the best kind of policing.

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