Bias part 2: Slaves to the Story

Since I recently posted a rant about the idea of media bias, I thought it only fair to talk about this Gawker piece.

(Since I posted that blog, David Carr at the New York Times has a column much more eloquent than my thoughts on the subject. The Gawker story is, in large part, a response to that.)

I knew I was going to like this story from the first line:

First off—there is no such thing as “the media.”

THANK YOU. That’s a terrible catch-all term, and it’s used too often to evoke a vaguely-defined boogey-man (straw man is more accurate, I guess) against which one can rail. When someone complains about “the media,” that person’s audience nods sympathetically and imagines that the term encompasses the newspapers, TV talking heads and bloggers they dislike while excluding the ones they agree with.

But I digress.

In the story, John Cook argues that the media’s bias against Mitt Romney is not political, but narrative. Pretty much nails it in this graph:

Many of the reporters, producers, and editors managing coverage of the political campaign may be culturally or politically liberal, but their first allegiance isn’t to the Revolution. It’s to the Story. And the Story So Far of this campaign is that Romney is a hapless, robotic, buffoon who insists on repeatedly detonating his campaign in an escalating series of Inspector Clouseau disasters.

When I get into arguments with friends and family members about supposed media bias, I’m usually defending my fellow scribes. But if those on the other side of the argument are savvy enough to bring up the idea of “the narrative,” that’s when my defenses fall.

As a print reporter, I show up to a lot of events where there are also TV reporters. I’ve never been to a scene with one TV camera crew and reporter. If one shows up, they all do. And when they get there, they move in a herd. They crowd around the same people to get the same quotes. When they set up to do live shots, they line up next to each other, so the view on the TV screen seems the same no matter what channel you’re watching. It’s as if they’re terrified to have a story that differs in any way from their peers.

I pick on TV people, but to some extent all journalists are susceptible to this. We tend to hook on to narratives, when stories take on that “extra element” that feeds in to a bigger discussion.

When I was a new reporter, I worked on a story in East Bridgewater where a young boy was killed crossing the street to pick up his family’s mail. Initially, there were reports that he was wearing “Heelies,” sneakers that have a wheel in the heel that allows the wearer to glide around. That made the story go viral, getting picked up nationally. When it was just a tragic accident, people weren’t interested. When it could be plugged into a bigger story, “Are Heelies safe?” that’s when people got interested. (The Heelies thing turned out to be false, by the way, and the national coverage faded away almost instantly.)

To some extent, that’s what Cook is saying is happening with the Romney coverage. It’s not enough to simply report events. Political reporters are plugging individual incidents into the “Romney is gaffe prone” narrative, incidents that on their own might not be newsworthy.

I think Cook pulls of the contrarian thing well here, but I have mixed feelings. I don’t think he’s wrong that media members can form a herd mentality and fall into the trap of subconsciously seeking stories that fit into a bigger picture. I think journalists are much more likely to fall prey to this kind of “bias,” to the Story over the story, than they are to let personal politics seep into their work. (For the record, Cook says in the piece he’s not a Romney fan.) But I think there are times when it’s OK to frame a story in a larger context – it’s not always a bad thing to look for a narrative arc when you’re on a beat or chasing a larger story.

Cook compares what the press is doing to Romney to what they did to Kerry and Gore, noting that like in those instances, many of the anecdotes about Romney’s wooden-ness and inability to seem normal have an element of truth. But then he says this:

But too many of the producers and reporters who covered those campaigns ultimately made no serious attempt to slice through easily established narrative to focus on the issues at stake.

I find that statement really hard to disagree with.


About justingraeber

PR pro and media geek. Sucker for new technology, gadgets, social media, etc. Dad. Red Sox fan. Remembers way too many MST3K quotes.
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