international analysis and commentary

Bias in the media and the virtue of diversity

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After a New York Times interview in which Aaron Sorkin – talking about his new show Newsroom – stated that the show isn’t biased and doesn’t have a political agenda, a reporter for Forbes Magazine pointed out that Sorkin donates exclusively to Democrats and thus is biased after all. This episode is indicative of how our news media confuses bias – and its counterpart, objectivity – with neutrality. And this confusion actually explains a lot about how the news media has evolved over the last twenty years.

Unlike objectivity, neutrality is quite simple to prove. Has the person in question registered for a party, or donated to a candidate, or expressed any strong political opinions that identify him or her as either conservative or liberal? The public record is out there, and the media is quite good at digging up registration records or video clips in which the person in question may appear to lean in a certain direction.

Objectivity, however, is a much more complex concept. A person’s objectivity isn’t defined by his or her opinions on issues or politicians, but how he came to those opinions in the first place. At first blush, it seems easy enough to be objective: simply observe and analyze things as they are, rather than how you want them to be. But in practice, this is enormously difficult: as Goethe wrote, “the hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.”

Objectivity requires three basic steps. First, as historian Thomas Haskell wrote, the person must “abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and achieve distance from one’s own spontaneous perceptions and convictions.”[1] Second, with this open mind a person must attempt in good faith to enter into the perspective of other rival thinkers, essentially trying on different opinions the way someone may try on hats. And finally, the person must be honest about his findings – if he finds that another perspective makes more sense, he should not remain attached to his own previous opinions but rather willing to change his public position in accordance with his change of mind.

Fully detaching oneself from preconceived notions and personal biases is simply impossible, and even a partial victory in this regard is extremely difficult. Trying to take on the perspective of someone with radically different beliefs – especially those that one might view as not only wrong but also morally repugnant – can be a jarring experience. Publicly changing positions on issues can make a person look malleable and eager to please, and could be seen as an admission that he had not fully thought out his previous opinion, thus undercutting his future credibility.

Yet just because this approach to observation and analysis is difficult – and complete success impossible – doesn’t mean the concept should be abandoned. After all, it is equally impossible to be a perfectly moral person, and yet the concept of morality is still a standard to which society believes individuals should aspire. So too should the standard of objectivity.

The media didn’t used to be so confused between these two concepts. In the last fifty years there have been three periods of journalism. In the first phase, the three television networks and major newspapers dominated the media. As each outlet was trying to appeal to the entire market, there was a limit to how partisan they could be, preventing the type of audience segmentation along ideological cleavages that characterizes later periods. Yet the high barriers to entry largely shielded news organizations from criticisms of bias, allowing journalists to voice opinions and analyze issues in a decidedly non-neutral way. In fact, their credibility was largely based on their reputations for “calling it like they see it.” And “call it” they did: during this period, many journalists – or at least those at the top of the food chain – became highly influential in shaping popular opinions. Two notable examples of this are Edward R. Murrow’s criticism of Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communism witch hunt and Walter Cronkite’s loss of faith in the US military intervention in Vietnam, which were significant factors in turning popular opinion against both McCarthy and the Vietnam War.

But this situation was inherently unstable. Over time, the networks were exposed to more and more competition from talk radio and cable networks. More importantly, many of the upstart competitors – like a young shock-jock named Rush Limbaugh and a new TV network called Fox News – heavily criticized established journalists for having an ideological bias, and implicitly marketed themselves as conservative alternatives to what they claimed was the “liberal media”.

The networks responded by largely silencing their own opinions – reporting “just the facts” – and adopting a “both sides” approach, always making sure to put on the air both a liberal and conservative guest. This is essentially the state of the mainstream news media today.

This development has left mainstream journalism with two functions. The first is mere stenography: “Today the President said the Earth is flat, though the Speaker of the House criticized him, pointing out that everyone knows it’s shaped like a burrito. Who’s right and who’s wrong? You decide.” And the second function is babysitting: “And now we’ll have on the show two pundits from either sides of the political spectrum who will proceed to yell and interrupt each other until you’re more confused than you were before.”

But this approach is itself biased. By legitimizing both sides of the debate, the news report has a bias towards neutrality, even if the truth is clearly on one side or the other. People are led to believe that the shape of the planet or evolution are fair topics of debate with equal points on both sides, when in fact they aren’t: there’s a proven right and wrong answer. Political rhetoric passes through the media largely untouched, analyzed not for its veracity but for how it will affect the electoral horserace and “play” in various swing states.

Over the last decade, this vacuum of analysis – combined with the advent of the internet – has led to a surprisingly influential political blogosphere. If the established news organizations won’t analyze the contents of political rhetoric, somebody else will, namely anyone with an internet connection willing to read Congressional Budget Office and Government Accountability Office reports and write about them. Journalism has thus become more organic and bottom-up, with more and more of the news agenda and analysis crowd-sourced.

The main critique of this new model is, you guessed it, bias: readers don’t know who is reputable, who has an agenda, and who is being paid by whom. This is true, but somewhat irrelevant. As noted earlier, objectivity is about how someone approaches an issue, not the conclusion he or she comes to. The internet has made previously-constrained space (inches on a newspaper or seconds in a broadcast) virtually unlimited, giving bloggers, reporters, and other writers the space to lay out not just their conclusions, but their reasoning as well. The “transparency of logic” allows readers to actually judge a writer’s claim of objectivity, whereas previously they could only judge the appearance of objectivity.

The real danger associated with this new form of internet-based opinion journalism is not biased analysis and reporting, but that the audience might become segmented by ideology: conservatives and liberals can choose to rely exclusively on those news sources that share their beliefs without ever being exposed to a different viewpoint. In a democracy like that of the US in which the political system is set up so that both sides must cooperate in order to accomplish anything, this presents a problem, because different groups know less and less about each other and therefore have a harder time communicating.

This is a conundrum that news organizations of all sorts are confronted with, and with no clear solution in sight. If a news organization wants a large national audience that spans ideologies, it has to be neutral, but if it wants to do hard-hitting and honest reporting, defined here as objective journalism, it can only survive if its audience is more ideologically homogenous (and its reporting reinforces that ideology). Since this dynamic is not bound to change anytime soon, we can only hope that voices, on newspapers, news networks, cable and online, continue to multiply. If objectivity and diversity of opinions cannot simultaneously be found on the same platform, they can at least coexist across media outlets.