Wednesday, June 06, 2012

My biased opinion on bias and opinion

(Inspired by Point 9 of this impressive piece)

People who read or watch the news often claim that it’s biased. They’re right. But they’re also very wrong.

I have long criticized the idea of the unbiased news source. It’s a false ideal, because everyone harbors biases. Bias is like cholesterol — mostly known for being bad, but also for being essential to life in its good form. Every time an editor decides what cover or include in a publication, they are exercising bias. No one, be they journalist or reader, can wade through the infinite amount of news and perspectives that are out there. And really, who would want to? Everyone filters and interprets life in their own way. And that’s why no one can truly call themselves unbiased. A good editor will harness bias toward favoring relevance and accuracy rather than veiled ideology or revenue.

In order to be a great beat reporter, a person must take interest in their area of coverage — and with interest comes bias. A court reporter is going to have some notion, be it intellectual or emotional, about how the judicial system should work (and when it doesn’t). A music/arts reporter will inevitably gravitate toward a certain artist, period or genre. A religion reporter probably isn’t neutral on the subject. A sports writer will hold allegiances to their favorite teams. It’s natural. But if the scribes are any good, it’s the interest more than the bias that will shine through in the coverage. You get strong journalism by people who know what they’re talking about.

(Conversely, unbiased journalism isn’t necessarily better journalism. No one should be plunked into a beat where they have no knowledge or interest, strictly in the name of objectivity. That’s likely to lead to flat, incomplete and inaccurate stories.)

Even political bias, the form of bias most people think of and fear, isn’t that big a deal. Consumers of news often worry about political bias, shaped largely by the view that reporters are not only neutral in coverage, but are also neutral within. And that simply isn’t true. I know plenty of journalists on a personal level, and virtually all of them are incredibly opinionated (and not all are liberal). You’d never know it from their work (and most of them don’t recklessly blog like I do), but some of them would put my ferocity to shame.

Like any good journalist, I am able to jettison, or at least harness, my biases when necessary. I am aware of them, and I want others to be aware of them. It leads me to take an extra second to ask myself if I’m being fair. Fairness is paramount. When I can’t do it, I won’t do the story. But I’ll always do my best when I do. That’s what we do.

Not that showing bias is always bad, either. Many of history’s most memorable journalists are remembered for that very thing. For example, Walter Cronkite famously declared that Vietnam had become “a stalemate, at best.” Editorials abound in every newspaper, publication and news website in the world. Despite the corporate trend toward interchangeable cogs, a memorable writer will always stick with people. A publisher once told me that writers shouldn’t be afraid to take stances when appropriate, because readers deserve to take that into consideration. He and I didn’t agree on much ideologically, but we agreed on that.

So don’t worry about bias — worry about ethics. Bias is personal, but ethics is shared. An ethical newsroom breeds professionalism. Someone with strong ethics will temper (or accent) their biases when necessary out of a sense of journalistic integrity. Ethical behavior ensures that a journalist won’t accept bribes meant to influence coverage. It means they will disclose any potential conflict of interest. But most of all, it means they’ll exercise good judgment and apply the correct standards for the situation at hand.

Ethics, not bias, matters most in a news organization. One that honors a code of ethics and acknowledges its biases is honest and trustworthy. One that doesn’t, isn’t.

That’s my opinion, anyway.

No comments: