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Objectivity is unbelievable — let’s give bias a try | The Lock Box

September 30, 2008

“Bias” may be the dirtiest word in journalism short of “plagiarism,” but “objectivity” is fast becoming the most impotent. Agree with that or don’t, but consumers of news see bias and nobody’s winning any readers by denying that and continuing to operate under the “balanced news coverage” banner.

If this sounds backwards coming from me … well, it kind of is. Just a few months ago I posted a piece deriding an ad agency-run community newspaper in Orting, Wash. that had stepped in to fill the void of the local paper that had gone out of business. I argued that the site ought to reveal its backers and its biases so as to differentiate itself from a traditional news source.

Call me a flip-flopper or whatever, but I feel the exact opposite now, so I’m taking back what I said and throwing it into The Lock-Box.

Then again, maybe I don’t feel “the exact opposite” so much as the exact same, only stronger. Decide for yourself; here’s my thought: It seems to me that — for good reason or no — people are convinced of media bias in some form. So I think it’s safe to say that they read everything with an eye toward that bias. Sometimes what they see as bias is legit, sometimes they’re just grasping at straws because they don’t like what they read. Whatever. News organizations are stuck in this mindset of making reporters tell stories from the standpoint of a casual observer who has an absolute interest in whatever’s being reported, but no preference to either side of the story whatsoever. Naturally, these ideas create conflict and as a result, news organizations lose consumers, if not credibility.

There’s a simple solution to this that should make just about everyone happy — tell the truth.

Here it is: Every single person on the face of the Earth — reporters included — is biased toward just about everything. It is therefore absolutely ridiculous to believe that a person can be completely objective toward anything.

So how would I propose this truth telling manifest itself in newsrooms? I think every editorial staff should get together and shred the “fair and objective” section of their mission statement. Seriously. Supplant it with something more truthful like, “Every reporter will write each story from his or her own unique viewpoint, use his or her own unique sources and attempt to cover as many angles as possible.”

Further, I think news sources should have their reporters switch to writing in the first person. (Jason Preston sold me on this idea on his blog and in this post on Blog Business Summit.) Writing in the first person brings honesty to a story — I counted about 100 people at the event versus There were about 100 people at the event — and it puts the reader in the writer’s shoes, which could help breed more loyalty toward writers and brands. (I don’t have to point out the advantages this would yield for writers looking to enter “free agency.”)

This could translate well up to editorial positions, too — we all know that bias exists in deciding where to run stories, etc.

Most of all, a move like this would — I think — be seen by the public as the Journalism elite stepping down off their high horses (real or perceived) and extending a hand to some of the people who lost faith in them. Suddenly the “Hey, that story’s biased!”/”No it’s not!” arguments would turn into “Hey, that story’s biased!”/”Well, we never said it wouldn’t be.”

Maybe that gesture would be a big first step in restoring people’s trust and interest in our medium.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2009 4:55 pm

    I think you’re absolutely right that we need to scrap the “objectivity” myth.

    The one point that I think you hint at in here, which is a big hurdle for many journalists, is that it doesn’t matter how biased you actually are, it only matter that the perception exists.

    I also don’t think that we should aim for biased news sources – I think that we should go for something more like, say, a newsroom with 50% reporters who lean left and 50% reporters who lean right.

    More complex than that, obviously, but you get the idea.

    Incidentally, you should catch up with Todd Herman tonight at The Pitch, he heads up SpinSpotter, a local company that tracks media bias.

  2. paulbalcerak permalink*
    March 19, 2009 11:36 pm

    Well I’ve always been kind of long winded, but that — “it doesn’t matter how biased you actually are, it only matter that the perception exists” — summed up my train of thought nicely.

    I agree with you on some kind of 50/50 split — the bias thing was just a way of saying that journalists need to stop hiding behind their bylines and start writing as real people. If I were starting up a news site and recruiting journalists, I’d look for as many viewpoints as possible — liberals, conservatives, anarchists, etc. It seems to me that everyone accuses the media of being biased one way or another anyway, so why not come out and admit, “Yeah, everyone’s biased, but at least we’re being up front about it”?


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