Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Press Bias: Some Other Ways of Looking at it

I enjoy reading Jay Rosen's PressThink column. It's always thoughtful, well argued, and insightful.

A recent column, "Editor and Publisher Wants Answers: Are Newsrooms Too Liberal? Very Tricky Question." takes a long, hard look at "liberal bias" and the efforts of Editor and Publisher magazine to reach some answers in light of the Pew Study results showing significant liberal bias in the media.

Rosen applauds E&P for tackling the subject but thinks they might be doomed to just provide more ammunition for the endless "wars" he believes news reporting, and commentary on journalism, is devolving into. Rosen has a unique (to me anyway) take on the labelling of the press as "liberal," the rise of FoxNews, and the response of CNN and the usual academic journalism commentators. He sees "liberal media" as a wedge being used to politicise news reporting and fragment it into partisan camps. (Regular readers of the blog LeanLeft will recognise that tgirsch uses a variant of this argument.)
So I sent him some questions. He said he got a flood of e-mail after announcing his intentions. "I think a lot of people really want an open-minded look at this and we will do our best to respond." The focus will be not on the "liberal bias" charge generally but "the newsoom composition issue," meaning the mix of liberals and conservatives at a newspaper, how that affects the news, and what might be done about it-- if we buy the proposition. The E & P report, he said, will not be "yet another commentary on liberal bias in national coverage, yes or no." Instead:

Our small "team" of reporters will first look deeply at the Pew numbers and methodology, and try to find every other survey in recent years on make-up of newsrooms and beliefs. We will also see what's out there in surveys of j-school students, their poltiics--and what happens to them afterward. There's a theory that the liberal types go into newspapers, the non-ideological to TV and radio, and the conservatives mainly to publicity and other business-oriented fields. True? Maybe not.

We will also look at j-school faculty, what is their political orientation, what do they teach about "objectivity," and what do they think of all this. Then we will interview dozens of editors at papers big and small about what they think of the make-up of their newsrooms, do they see many conservatives applicants, what questions do they ask of applicants, what do they think of bias at their papers, etc. Then we will ask them, and some outside observers, whether there needs to be an ideological "affirmative action" program at newspapers. And there are many other issues as well....
It's a long, long, deep look at the issue and I recommend it strongly for the way it will provoke you to think about this issue. The comments section starts off pretty well, but quickly collapses into an extended argument between a handful of long-winded parties.

One thing I want to mention in connection with this article is Rhetorica, a website run by a Missouri professor of rhetoric that I've linked to in the past. Professor Andy Cline argues very persuasively that what many folks mistake for "liberal bias" is, in fact, narrative and structural bias. He shows how the media frequently lock stories into templates that are hard to break out of. He blames it mostly on the speed of the news cycle and quantity-over-quality compromises. While he doesn't argue there is no liberal bias, he deprecates it to narrative bias.

Lastly, be sure to read Dr. Cline's post "Information and Authority" from June 17th.
Yesterday I began exploring the practice of quoting anonymous sources with these questions in mind: How are the concepts of "discipline of verification" and "custodian of fact" related? And is a discipline of verification really opposed to the idea that reporters can and should state the facts as they understand them outside the confines of verification by anonymous sources?
he elaborates on a controversial theory of reporting where the reporter can insert some of his own experience and knowledge into weighing the veracity of anonymous and expert sources in his stories. I'm not sure I understand it correctly, so read for yourself.

Whew! That's a lot of deep reading for one post. Almost feels like homework. But trust me here, it's worth it.

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