For Honest Media Bias

by on October 25th, 2004

Mark Jurkowitz, the Boston Globe’s media reporter, writes today about rising complaints of media bias. Some see a liberal tilt, others a conservative one. Jurkowitz, noting the now-common observation that voters who watch Fox News overwhelmingly support George Bush while CNN watchers opt for John Kerry, points to the “growing evidence that citizens may be matching their news sources with their ideology.”

I complain about the tilted media also, though the tilt I object to most is the one toward the corporate-defined mainstream. Still, I don’t think there’s any alternative to filtering news through one lens or another. And I’m not so sure that’s entirely a bad thing.

Jurkowitz adds this:

Thomas Patterson, a professor of government and the press at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, has characterized this phenomenon as the ”cafeteria dimension of selecting an outlet to fit one’s own views…. If you look at how the public really cuts through information, they come at it from a values perspective.”

News is always filtered. Someone always decides what stories to cover, which aspects of those stories are important and which can be omitted, whether to take something at face value or dig further. Even an apolitical journalist makes choices based on a sense of journalistic responsibility, the public good, or some other equally value-laden objective reflecting the lives of middle-class professional journalists. And such filtering is necessary. Unfiltered news would overwhelm us, as anyone trying to make their way through the blogosphere should understand.

In the old days, competing daily newspapers presented an array of political positions. Readers in many cities could select a paper that matched their own sense of how the world worked. Of course, that sense often resulted from exposure to the media as well as from other socialization and propaganda sources. But the choice of newspaper was often a frank political choice.

Today that mainstream newspaper diversity is drastically reduced, replaced by competing cable TV and Internet sources. The range within the corporate-owned mainstream remains narrow — Fox and CNN differ in their coverage of Bush and Kerry, but both present positions that support rather than challenge the broader American status quo. The Internet offers more diverse alternatives, including many further to the left that offer what seem to me more comprehensive assessments of the world than we see on either Fox or CNN or for that matter in the New York Times, but their impact on most people is minimal to nonexistent. Citizens interested in broadening political debate and expanding dissemination of information should push to break corporate control of the mainstream media instead of simply demanding that corporate news outlets do a better job than the one they’re designed to accomplish.

The common yearning for nonpartisan, objective, unfiltered news coverage ignores what should be clear: the ability of well-trained journalists to write without obvious bias does not mean their values don’t affect what they do. As a reader, I’d rather judge for myself how credible the reporting is, and knowing more about the reporter’s values would make my effort easier. That’s similar to how I felt as a student when I sometimes wondered how the teacher’s personal views affected the subject matter presented.

The traditional American commitment to objective journalism offers the appearance of objectivity without the impossible reality. I don’t mean to say reporters are lying to us. Good reporters know how to report factual information and I imagine most want to do a decent job. But even good reporters are affected by their sense of the world, a sense that’s never universally shared. So are their editors and publishers. The required appearance of neutrality, seemingly designed to keep the news honest, actually prevents journalists from having to consider how their own values and interests affect their work.

What I hope to read every day are reports presented honestly and fairly from a variety of perspectives: honestly acknowledging that the journalist’s own views might affect the story, and fairly acknowledging that competing views and analyses exist. I’d also like every news source to openly declare its allegiances. That would make it easier to seek out a broader range of competing views, if that’s what we really want to do.

Dennis Fox