Not so long ago, there was an open, healthy dialogue about the way news media worked – Hollywood even made movies about it with big stars, Oscar-nominated hits like Broadcast News and Absence of Malice. That was around the time that I was studying to become a journalist, and questions of bias and media ethics were openly, enthusiastically discussed.
It's barely a generation later, and we've evolved with astonishing speed from serious, probing explorations of the news media to casual (and insidious) dismissals of "fake news" – an epithet that is no longer the domain of extremist, but is used with alarming frequency by centrist Americans.
There's a suspicion, championed and encouraged by the president himself, that news media are biased, and an assumption that that bias is tilted toward the left. That appears not to be true.
A scene from Broadcast News
An objective analysis of bias in the media shows the reality – most mainstream news sources aren't particularly biased, and most do a good job of filtering out their individual perspectives. The problem is that the ones with the biggest audience, the ones that grab the headlines and that get shared on social media, don't have that filter.
Through the late 1990s, there were only a handful of sources for information about what was happening in the world. You could pick up your local newspaper; watch a network newscast; tune in to round-the-clock "headline news" on CNN; or listen to news radio, the primary home of conservative and liberal commentators. In the newspaper or on TV, opinion-driven editorials were clearly labeled as such.
That's not to say there weren't biased sources of information – they just weren't considered mainstream "news." This landscape dominated America's information and communication network when I was studying to become a journalist. When I finally became a newspaper reporter, it was only after years of intense training to learn how to write and edit in ways that limited the encroachment of personal thinking into the news.
We were taught how to identify words, phrases, thoughts and ideas that could be misinterpreted as bias and perspective in the news we were covering. When I worked as a city-government reporter, assigned to cover hot-button issues affecting redevelopment of a medium-sized city in Florida, the newspaper I worked for ran a full-page ad in which the publisher endorsed a particular ballot measure. I was incensed; the efforts I had made to be balanced and unbiased about the issue had been undone by the paid endorsement.
Photo by Fred Kearney on
"You can be angry about this," my editor told me. "You should be angry about this. But your job is to report on what happened, not how you feel about it." I was given the task to write, as objectively as I could, about the newspaper's decision to inject itself into local politics. I talked to sources who were shocked and angry about the ad, and I talked to the publisher, who gave me his perspective.
Then we left it for the reader to decide. It was our place to tell readers what had happened, not to decide for them if it was right or wrong.
I've thought about that incident a lot lately, because it's not far off from the challenge the media continue to have: How can you be angry or sad or enthusiastic or excited about the news you see happening, yet report it fairly? How can you keep in mind that there are readers and viewers who don't share your perspectives?
Most news media rise to that challenge a daily basis. But scroll through your social-media feed and it's dominated by CNN, MSNBC, Fox News. These are the equivalent of 24-hour editorial pages, filled with hastily (often angrily) rendered opinions.
Alex Jones of Info Wars
A news diet that consists solely (or mainly) of those outlets is like a nutritional diet that exists only of fats and sugars; it's possible to live on it, but you'll end up desperately sick. And to assume all news outlets exhibit such extreme bias based on watching those news outlets is like assuming all food is unhealthy based on eating at Burger King.
Reporters are human. Because they're human they bring their own perspectives and biases to the work they do. And then, if they're well-trained as journalists, they filter out those biases. They listen. They watch. They observe and report. They question. They analyze and evaluate what is said, and find others who can counter a single voice or perspective.
Theirs is the work that everyone should seek out. "Look for the helpers," Mr. Rogers famously said about dealing with calamity. "You will always find people helping."
When it comes to journalism, look for the fact-tellers. They are at your local newspaper, at your network news affiliate, at news wire services, at network news shows. They are at websites large and small. You can usually tell their work because it is filled with quotes from sources (even anonymous ones, who are never, ever anonymous to the reporter and their editor) and with citations for the information it imparts. Their work will almost always seek multiple perspectives and opposing views. It is information that is carefully gathered and often times hard won by people who are trained to do what they do for a living.
Their facts may or may not be your truth. Whether you like the facts as they are is a different issue altogether. But if you want the best information from which to draw your own conclusions, then do as Mr. Rogers exhorted: Look for the fact-tellers. You will always find them.
J. Joseph Watson is a writer and former journalist, who has worked for daily newspapers in Ohio, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, California and Oregon. He is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.
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