Wednesday, May 25, 2005

On bias and journalism

I have worked in newsrooms big, medium, and small since 1995. I have worked with both print reporters and broadcast editors. I have personally written for print and online mediums, at large metro newspapers to small community newspapers.

I have been inside the machine, but I have never witnessed an intentional slant put on a story nor have I ever been told a stated agenda before a story is written. I am an Evangelical Christian with neolibertarian political leanings. If there were ever a liberal agenda, I would have spotted it and called it out years ago.

The one quality all of my peers have shared is a sensitivity to the charge of bias. In most cases, the bias is in the reader. If there is an appearance of bias, it's more likely the combined result of laziness, human error, and reporter/editor misperception. I'm not so defensive, but I recognize most people don't understand how news evolves, what drives it, or even why some things are considered newsworthy and others are not. Here's some things where readers are commonly confused:

The difference between a columnist and a reporter: News columnists and news reporters have two very different jobs. A news reporter tells the story through the eyes of those who experienced the news event. The news columnist provides first-person perspective. A news columnist is someone whose opinions run on a news page, often as a sidebar to the news story. Many liberties are given to news columnists, but their opinions are clearly marked by a mug shot and byline that indicates their article is based in opinion -- quite often an opinion not at all shared by the reporter, editorial staff or publisher. Too many readers fail to understand this distinction.

Headlines are rarely written by reporters or lead editors: This one drives me crazy because most newspapers put little emphasis on writing good headlines. I've had many stories where the headline misrepresented what the story said. It's never intentional, but headlines are usually the very last thing created for a story. In a crunch, and attempting to find something that fits the predetermined space on the page, copy editors will sum up something from the story. Sometimes this works great. Sometimes the summation is so abbreviated it removes context and conditioners in the text that explain what's actually being reported. If I write a story about President Bush wanting to offer financial assistance to pregnant teens, the headline should not be "Bush assists teens with pregnancy." Some papers have talented copy editors writing headlines. Other papers -- usually the ones with tiny budgets and an understaffed copy desk -- just don't put enough emphasis on the process, which should include having reporters and lead editors placing suggested headlines in their copy.

Expertise is not common among reporters: It amazes me when reporters are allowed to cover sensitive issues without having an academic understanding of the people they are covering. To us Christians, the term "fundamentialist" is only one theological position in the expansive Evangelical universe. To many members of the media -- some of them Christians without much insight -- "fundamentalist" is the term used to cover all conservative Evangelicals and Charismatics, because it makes sense to them only a fundamentalist could believe in a literal translation of the Bible, etc. Reporters are completely unaware how offensive the confusion is and how the word appears to be used in a constant negative connotation. Again, I assure you this has more to do with the average reporter's ignorance and not because they hate Christians. Ironically, in the newsrooms I've worked in, the Christians (Catholics + Protestants) outnumber all other faiths and non-faiths combined. One of my former editors was an ordained Baptist minister. It was always entertaining to me to hear him getting verbally abused by some reader who was convinced he was an atheist with an anti-Christian agenda. If he ever quoted the Bible, well, "the devil can quote scriptures, too!" I'm glad he found the humor in it.

Most reporters are apolitical: The vast majority of reporters I've met can't stand politicans and have no faith in the system. They would be just as happy busting a Democrat as they would a Republican. It just so happens Republicans are usually easier targets because of the constant moralizing they do in their campaigns. It's an easy hypocritical bubble to burst, because it's very rare when a politician walks the way he/she talks. It's fair to criticize the cynicism of mass media, but I'd rather my reporters to be cynics than idealists. I think most reasonable people can understand the pragmatical professional need for cynics in the media.

Don't confuse broadcast media with newspapers: Cal Thomas draws an excellent distinction between broadcast journalism today and broadcast journalism 25 years ago. He said he was required to have a college degree and five years reporting at a major newspaper before ever seeing time in front of a camera. Back then, TV reporters wrote all their own copy. Today, broadcast journalism is a ridiculous parody of what it once was. Reporters and anchors read the news and nothing more. TV news producers are the real stars of broadcast journalism, and I've met very few who have any journalism experience outside of their medium. Some of them come from a marketing background.

Publishers have very little contact with the newsroom: The image of a publisher coming down to rewrite headlines and slant the news is a comical one. Maybe that was true in the days of Hearst, but it's just an impossible reality today. Publishers are concerned with circulation numbers and ad revenues. They spend their days schmoozing big-dollar advertisers and meeting with the veeps. Their whole goal is to keep their corporate investors happy. Most publishers do have the final judgement of newspaper content, but it's a rare occasion when they get to exercise that right. Most often it occurs when an editor knows something questionable is going in the paper and they need the publisher's approval. If it's a concern over libel, it goes to the lawyer, not the publisher.

If you're looking for real bias in newspapers, look at who owns them -- large corporations. The Gannetts of the world have an incentive to be pro-Republican. If you look at media ownership deregulation efforts, it's entirely Republican driven. Corporate media giants are the ones picking up the tab on that hefty lobbying bill, and they have many Republicans in their back pockets. That should be a much, much bigger concern.

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