When I first started working as an editor at a weekly newspaper, we got two very different complaints within a few day of each other.
Everyone who has ever worked at a college or small-town paper has probably had to do the “question of the week” feature, ask a question of five different people, get their response, run their headshots, etc. We had a guy refuse to answer the question of the week because he thought the paper was liberally biased. Within days, I got an earful from a town official calling us a Republican rag because we’d run something positive about the Republican state representative.
That’s how I’ve always seen the whole idea of bias. It’s completely in the eye of the beholder, meaning people project what they want to see on the newspapers or media outlets they don’t like.
It’s one thing that’s always bothered me, not because there’s never any truth to it – because there are obviously isolated incidents. I’m not saying it never happens.
But for the most part, the myth of “the mainstream media is liberally biased” is lazy, boring, tired and not true. It’s just a canard that feeds into a particular ideology. If you perpetuate this myth, anytime there’s a story that paints your side in an unflattering light you can brush it off as “that biased media again.” It’s a built in excuse, and it’s just lazy. It’s victimization culture at its absolute worst, and it prevents any kind of self reflection when you can’t see negative articles as legitimate criticisms.
That time the man refused to answer my paper’s question of the week because he thought the paper was biased toward the left? At the time, the editor was an arch-conservative who freelanced for a right-wing magazine. Again, people see what they want to see.
In fairness, the idea of bias is a complicated one. A study done during the 2008 presidential election cycle found that at the same time people were perceiving that the media was “going soft” on then-candidate Barack Obama, he was actually getting more negative stories written about him. But other studies show that most reporters identify as liberal. From my own experience, I’ve found that most editors and publishers/owners skew conservative, and most (but certainly not all) reporters in the newsroom tend to be liberal.
But what does that mean? Does that self-identification have any kind of automatic transfer to the work produced?
Frankly, I don’t think how people identify politically has to have any carry over whatsoever into their work. I’ve always thought it was the easiest thing in the world to separate my personal feeling – especially on political matters – from what I was covering. If anything, when I have strong feelings on an issue, I’m even more careful to include all perspectives in a story. When bias leaks in to what should be straight news reporting, it’s usually more about lazy reporting that it is some deliberate ideological agenda.
Again, it’s not like there aren’t isolated incidents where people don’t seem to be able to separate their feelings from their coverage, like this reporter who landed in hot water after covering the Chick-Fil-A gay marriage controversy, then ranting about it on his Facebook account. But even that raises questions for me. Is anyone alleging this guy’s coverage was tainted by his opinion? Would this have been a story without the Facebook post?
This post by Matthew Ingram tackles the question head on, and I think he’s totally right: Why are we pretending reporters don’t have opinions? That Pew study I linked to shows that reporters tend to be liberal, but where’s the evidence that means you can’t write a fair story? Or that consumers of news aren’t savvy enough to process the reporter’s point of view along with the content of the story? That’s where this whole bias thing falls apart for me.
This is the example that’s been rattling around in my head when thinking about this issue. Chris Faraone is a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix (now just the Phoenix). The Phoenix hold no pretensions about where they stand politically. And Faraone didn’t make any attempt to hide his politics as he wrote about the Occupy movement.
As the Occupy Wall Street movement spread from New York to Boston and other parts of the country, Faraone became the movement’s official scribe, even writing a book, “99 Nights with the 99 Percent.” He gave us the fullest picture of the movement as it exploded across the country. As others either idolized or demonized it, Faraone simply showed it for what it was.
Here’s the thing: Faraone is the most knowledgeable reporter out there on Occupy. Some other reporters have done good work on the subject, but I’d be surprised if anyone has traveled to as many sites and spent as much time in the encampments as he. While others sat in newsrooms and TV studios and guessed what the occupiers were thinking, Faraone did something crazy: he asked them. He was reporting from the front lines. So what if he clearly has an opinion? So what if he had an affection for the twenty-somethings in the tents, and a sometimes antagonistic view of the cops who moved in to clear them out? How does that make the facts he reported, and the scenes he described from the trenches, any less true? So he didn’t hide how he felt about the people he reported on. I, frankly, find that refreshing. It’s not like he made things up. And if he did, that wouldn’t be bias, it would be unethical. Two totally different things.
I know not everyone can take the perspective of an alt-weekly reporter, and as much as I love the Phoenix I’m not suggesting paper can write stories with the naked ideological honesty of Faraone’s missives from the front lines, tents and bus seats of Occupy. But I agree with Ingram, reporters would be better off dropping the whole pretense that we’re emotionless robots. I have many opinions on the subjects I cover, sometimes strong ones. But it has absolutely no bearing on my ability to write a fair story.
So how do we get past this? I’m not sure we ever will. The media can stop setting itself up for accusations of bias by stopping political endorsements, but that’s just one thing. People can also get out of the newsroom like Faraone did. It’s easier to avoid accusations of bias when you’re in the thick of what you’re reporting about, just telling people what you see. But especially when it comes to politics, where every minute thing is used as leverage against the “other side,” I’m afraid this trope of “biased media” will never go away. The only thing we as reporters can do is to push back against the echo chamber, and not let it prevent us from doing our jobs, from telling the stories that need to be told and holding people in power accountable, no matter how they vote.