Have you ever had a conversation stick in you mind for years? A conversation for whatever reason just replays over and over again in your mind? I once had a conversation with my reporter friend about bias in reporting. She argued fiercely that reporters are going to have bias in their stories because reporters are people and they have a perspective and as a result a bias. I argued that reporters are supposed to remain impartial and should try to see both sides of the discussion. At the end of the discussion we both agreed in part to each others points, and the conversation ended in one of those quasi-stalemates where you respect the person you’re talking to, but simply don’t agree. For the longest time this conversation has stuck with me. At first it stuck with me because I obviously still wanted to convince her I was right. Then after a while it stuck with me because I came to the realization that she was right. The thing is though even though I knew she was right the conversation kept creeping into my mind. It wasn’t until Jon Stewart interviewed Bret Baier of fox news recently on The Daily Show, did I realize what happened. Turns out I was kinda right all along except I totally didn’t understand why and because of that I was still very, very wrong.
I know that last sentence is hard to follow, to explain I’m going to go on a wild tangent and talk about something else entirely. I promise if you stick with me I’ll tie it all together. I recently had a discussion with a coworker that meandered through a variety of topics but throughout the discussion he kept on using the word genetics. He kept on using the word, but the phenomena he was describing were not genetics. So in my worst Spanish accent I stopped him and said: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means, what you think it means.” What he was saying roughly was that people’s pigmentation was a result of their environment and therefore environment affected their genes. As a result he came to the conclusion that if some tribe stayed in a particular region for multiple generations their offspring’s pigmentation would lighten or darken as a result of the environment. Here is the deal, people migrated across the world and some tribes stuck around in locations that their genes favorably acclimated to. As a result in that region those genes were most likely to be passed down. In other words some people are always cold; they are most likely going to move to a location that is warm. Once there they are going to meet a bunch of people who also like being warm and have babies. Since both mom and dad like being warm their baby will most likely be genetically predisposed to like the warmth. My coworker was right that people’s pigmentation was partially a result of their environment, but he didn’t understand why and leapt to a conclusion that the environment altered the genes themselves. I had fallen victim to a similar logical fallacy. I believed journalism should be impartial and as a result journalist should be impartial, and it is in this that I was fundamentally mistaken.
This brings me back to the interview on The Daily Show. During the interview Stewart tried to get Baier to acknowledge that, while there are reporters who truly are journalist, the news organization is ultimately biased because of the leadership of Roger Ailes. Baier stuck to the microscopic view that since the journalists were honestly reporting, any claims of bias are an indictment of those journalists integrity. This again comes back to my original idea that because journalists are supposed to be impartial if they show bias they are not being honest journalist and therefore lack integrity. But my original idea, while popular, is wrong, provable wrong. If you’re writing a story on fighting fires and you only talk to firefighters there is a bias and a partiality in the coverage, this does not make the article less journalistic. It also doesn’t require you to talk to people who have little knowledge on the subject at hand; you are not required to also talk to arsonists, to portray both sides of firefighting.
Integrity is not determined by bias in reporting. Integrity is determined by the effect bias has on the work produced. If because of your bias you bury a story that disproves your perspective, then you lose your integrity. This is what Fox new is guilty of, and why their bias is bemoaned. This is not a result of individual reporters; it is a result of an organization making the editorial decision to only hire reporters whose perspective leads them to cover stories from only one angle. An individual reporter can be biased, a news organization should not. News organizations are supposed to be robust enough to cover all angles of a story. But having an organization covering all angles, does not mean that you are then required to report all angles blindly ala CNN. Editors are supposed to look at all the angles of a story and present a view of the story. This view should not be balanced. Balance means to give all sides’ equal weight, which is not the same as objectivity. Objectivity is to give all arguments equal consideration; in other words to put all the arguments on a fair scale. The view presented should be the one with the most journalistic evidence/weight.
This brings us to the overall problem of modern journalism, and how it is killing news. News reporting has become a popularity contest. Reporters have morphed into quasi-celebrities. As a result people follow certain personalities as opposed to following certain stories. As a result the journalist perverts the story by being part of the reason the story gets coverage. This celebrity aspect of the news has nothing to do with journalism. However this celebrity aspect does have a dramatic effect on ratings. Whenever anyone challenges Fox news on the fairness of their editorial process, Fox counters with a promotion of their higher ratings than all the other news networks. The fact that Fox news is able to consistently create shows that millions of people are entertained by and are willing to routinely watch is a tremendous triumph. To call this an indication of quality journalism is, well just another fallacy.