Sunday, June 27, 2004

Truth Leaking Out on the Edges

Sunday's Wendi Thomas column in the Commercial Appeal is her look at the question "Is the media biased?" You'll note that she doesn't add "liberal" to that, but the column does make some fun points.
But it's irrational and perhaps undesirable to insist that we divorce our values from our profession.

A reporter whose first love is the blues will be a better music writer than a reporter whose first love is fly fishing.

But when a paper has few writers who are opposed to gay marriage, the coverage might be what you'd expect.
Good point. So why is the paper in that position? Despite complaints since I've been in Memphis, going on sixteen years now, why hasn't the paper ever produced a single conservative, regular local columnist? Why hasn't the Memphis Flyer done the same?

She quotes from the oft-discussed Pew study and notes:
In this way and many others, the ideologies of the press diverge from those of readers, giving rise to predictable accusations of bias.
But when the paper proposed, as the Commercial Appeal does, to "tell your stories" then you are presented with some problems.

How can a paper claim to represent the people of the community when they don't? If their politics and outlook diverge from the community, then who are they writing for? If all the stories must pass through only a small handful of people with pass/fail power and those people aren't representative of the community, then what is being represented?

This applies to much more than politics. As a white man, there are a great many realities that a black woman sees on a daily basis that I'd never be able to even conceptualise, much less write about with nuance and understanding. A newsroom of sports jocks would have different blinders, as would a newsroom of "stay at home mommies." Diversity assures depth and breadth of reporting.

When newspapers all across the State and the nation resemble each other in their editorials and politics, but are frequently at odds with their communities, who do you think is being spoken to? Who is being represented? Why should a community trust that paper's editorials?
The very nature of the job is one of choices. When we choose what to put on A1, we are saying, "This is the day's most important news."

Stories on the front page are more important than those on B1, which are more important than those on B6, which are more important than those that get no ink at all.

However biased our decisions may appear, I assure you there is no conspiracy.

We put out the equivalent of a paperback book every day, which leaves little time and even less energy to mount an organized attack.
Ahh, that gets to an important point. Dr. Andy Cline of Rhetorica has noted that a lot of what gets perceived as "liberal bias" is more the result of structural and narrative bias. What he means is just what Thomas is saying: stories must be completed so quickly, and so many keep on coming day after day, that it's not possible to consciously craft for particular agendas. What does happen is that reporters must fall back on templates for stories, learned from teachers and coworkers and editors, which will shape what they write and how it's presented. Templates are storylines we are all familiar with: the wronged woman who succeeds anyway; the small guy facing the blank, heartless face of bureaucracy; the greedy, self-enriching politician; the young man who overcomes adversity; a community "devastated." You get the idea.

This is something I have learned from real life. When you don't have time to think, you fall back on your existing philosophy, assumptions and prejudices to make decisions. What comes out isn't consciously shaped, but driven by the subconscious, by the inherent biases we all have. Really good writers can work over that, by rooting out and replacing their biases, but most will just follow a hunch or gut feeling and plow on. Their inner feelings will guide them as they write swiftly to meet the deadline. You fall into rhythms, or ruts, or automatism, pretty soon.

What also shapes reporting is academic, and later newsroom, peer pressure. It's the same at any job. There's a pre-existing atmosphere and attitude we must learn to conform to if we wish to keep our jobs and get along. You either learn to go with the flow or find yourself on the shoals. Newsrooms are no different from factory floors and cubical farms.

All these pressures and forces are at play all day, every day. As Thomas says, they have to crank it out, day after day. They don't have time to organise, so what comes is more honest because it is more direct, freed from conscious manipulation and editing. And if you're someone who has to work under those conditions, and find yourself fighting coworkers every day on issues large and small, often fighting basic assumptions about life, the universe and everything, you get tired after a while and either learn to adapt or go elsewhere.
Can we strive for balance? Yes, and every day, we do.

Balance comes easier in politically diverse news rooms, and comes more quickly when readers hold us accountable. I challenge you to challenge us.
But "balance" in newsroom parlance means something different than what many assume. It means if someone in a story is presenting View A, then a representative of View B must also be presented, regardless of appropriateness or validity. If you do a story about debate on a government decision, then folks for and against it must be quoted. Of course, the folks for it will be beneficiaries of it, too. Is this "balanced?" Will the writer take the viewpoint of the taxpayers who will finance it? That doesn't happen much, nor does skepticism of the constitutionality of government reach come into play unless one of the critics represents that view, which strangely enough, makes them "critical." If the reporter has Democratic leanings, they may not even consider the constitutionality angle.

Thomas is telling us, in so many words, that things are the way they are and will likely stay that way for a while to come. Too bad.

Go back and reread Thomas' column. She tells us she isn't allowed to express her political beliefs, but you'll see that she explicitly does.

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