On Bias in the Media

The New York Times is updating its social media guidelines. Part of the reason the Old Grey Lady is doing this is out of concerns her reporters have betrayed their personal biases, instead of hiding them behind a 16-foot cinderblock wall of objectivity. This is absurdly foolish. The New York Times is focusing on the wrong problem. But so has most of the professional press corps for decades. The problem isn’t a partisan press. There are avowedly liberal and conservative outlets that do wonderful work. There are outlets with other non-politic biases that put out a similarly valuable project. When most of the professional press corps, and the journalism schools that produce them, talk about the problem of bias in the media, the obvious focal point is Fox News Channel. But they’re misidentifying the problem. A news outlet that looks at things through a conservative lens can still provide quality and valuable news stories.The problem with Fox is that it doesn’t provide accurate, fair and thorough coverage. As Jon Stewart described it quite thoroughly, accurately and fairly, it is “Bullshit Mountain.”

The difference between bullshit and partisan press

Let’s look briefly at an example of what makes Fox bad. Admittedly, this is low-hanging fruit. Annually, several of its reporters and anchors bang the drums for “The War on Christmas.”Check out this segment for just one example. First of all, host Bill O’Reilly laments that there are Americans who are offended by any reference to Jesus Christ. Second, he claims this is where the dreaded Happy Holiday Syndrome comes from. Both of these assertions are laughably and provably false. First of all, people have been saying “Happy Holidays” for years. Hell, Bing Crosby and Andy Williams were singing about “Happy Holiday” back when Papa O’Reilly was a young lonely buck in Levittown dreaming of being a decorated general at the Battle of The Post Holiday Bulge. He also knows that saying Happy Holidays isn’t anymore of a denigration of Christmas than is singing about St. Stephen’s Day in “Good King Wenceslas.”Second of all, let us go back to his first point, about people being offended by mentions of Jesus.He knows this isn’t true. Welcome to “Bullshit Mountain.”But he knows there is an actual issue, one that’s worth reporting and could be reported well through a partisan lens. An actual issue is whether or not the First Amendment and the separation of church and state are at odds with our practice of the holiday. This could be done well, even if through a conservative lens. But it would mean talking to experts on the issue and presenting their expertise accurately and fairly. It would also mean talking to some people who don’t practice Christmas and getting their perspectives. But you don’t see that in O’Reilly’s segment.Now, someone could say O’Reilly’s show is an opinion show and that’s true. But opinions should be based on information and facts. The other problem is you won’t find any other honest and accurate reporting on the issue from the channel’s straight reporters. So yes, it’s possible to be a hours journalist and have a bias.Some of this country’s best reporting came when the press was highly partisan. Ida Tarbell, S.S. McClure, William Lloyd Garrison and others were driven by agendas. But their work was not lazy, incomplete and inaccurate. There’s a terrifying byproduct of this errant search for an unbiased press: It keeps the press from telling us some of the truths we need to hear.

What makes good journalism?

First, it has to be accurate. It has to present the facts clearly and concisely. It cannot hide the truth, no matter how uncomfortable It must seek out, with all of its ability, the the facts behind an issue.

Second, it must be thorough. Good journalism seeks out all the stakeholders on an issue. It digs in and finds how an issue affects different people and the different ways it affects them. It is active and not passive.

Third, it must be fair. This is where we get into trouble. Journalists have an obligation to be fair to the facts and to their audience. That’s it. If a journalist discovers a fact, it should be used in the reporting. And a journalist has to treat its audience with respect and honesty. But a journalist is not required to be fair to a source. For example, in a crime story, if a man is arrested for beating his child to death, you report the facts of the case. But no journalist would make the case that it’s OK to beat that child to death. This is an easy distinction in crime stories. But it’s not so easy in a lot of cultural and political stories. I think we often see the press fail here.

Our current president is a fine example. It took far to long for the press to start telling news consumers when the president was objectively lying.

This is where journalism is tricky. Journalists have to make touch decisions on a daily basis.

One thing they can do is stop spending time on the navel gazing about bias and spending more time on these important decisions.

Look, the New York Times and its readers know that the journalists have their own biases. Some are conservative. Some are liberal. Some are cat people. Some hate video games. Don’t hide these facts.

Really. Please stop.

The people who don’t trust you aren’t going to start trusting you because you’ve put up a stricter social media policy.

But if your readers start to know your reporters on a more personal basis – seeing their foibles and, gasp, some of their political beliefs – they’re going to feel like they know them more. That develops trust.

And the best way to be fair to your audience and to build up that trust is to be honest with them.

So if Glenn Thrush points out why he thinks a politician might be lying, he’ll have built up the credibility with your audience.

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