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On Tom Edsall’s Media Bias Piece: A More Scientific Approach is Needed

John on October 9, 2009 at 9:43 am

It’s hard to read Thomas Edsall’s current piece on media bias (which seems to be an expansion of the Colin Friedersdorf piece I discussed here) without getting whiplash. It’s one part mea culpa and one part apologia. The two don’t mix well:

In a UCLA study of media bias, reporters were found to be substantially more liberal and more Democratic than the public at large. Hoyt, in a column last year, acknowledged this finding: “Being human, journalists do have personal biases, and a long line of studies has shown that they tend to be more socially and politically liberal than the population at large. There is no reason to believe Times journalists are any different.”

If reporters were the only ones allowed to vote, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry would have won the White House by landslide margins. More specifically, reporters and editors tend to be social liberals, not economic liberals. Their view of unions and the labor movement is wary and suspicious. They are far more interested in stories about hate crimes than in stories about the distribution of income.

But, and this is a mega-but, even though the mainstream media are by this measure liberal, ending the discussion at this point would be a major disservice to both the press and the public. While the personnel tend to share an ideological worldview, most have a personal and professional commitment to the objective presentation of information, a commitment that is not shared by the conservative media. FOX News, The Weekly Standard, National Review, The Washington Times, Drudge, The Washington Examiner, The American Spectator, CNS News, Town Hall, WorldNetDaily, Insight Magazine are all explicitly ideological.

Yes, all these groups lean right. There are just as many explictly liberal leaning magazines and websites. So why doesn’t Edsall go on to say:

Of course these outlets are balanced on the left by MSNBC, The Nation, The New Republic, The LA Times, Huffington Post, Salon, Talking Points Memo, Think Progress, Media Matters, Accuracy in Media,  Mother Jones, Harper’s, Utne Reader.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t do that. In fact, he doesn’t mention these outlets at all. Instead he compares explicitly right wing outlets to the supposedly unbiased outlets like the NY Times and argues that the Times, despite failing to be unbiased, is at least trying. If this is so, shouldn’t the left wing journals be faulted for not trying to be more like the Times too?

Desipte this disjointed picture of the media landscape, Edsall goes on to make some important points:

Stories, local and national, of virtually every culture-war issue commonly reflect reporters’ allegiance to social insurgents against traditionalists—and readers, who include many with traditionalist leanings, sense this. The facts and quotes from the school board meeting or Congressional debate are accurate. But something is missing in the reporting on the parents who do not want explicit sex education taught in the third grade, or the pro-lifers who are convinced that abortion is murder. These people exist all too often as stick figures or caricatures whose views are delegitimized.

Exactly so. And Edsall’s recommendation is, in my opinion, a half-step in the right direction:

Attempts by journalists to conceal deeply held political convictions can be dangerous. While no agreed-upon mechanism or forum exists, at present, for editors and reporters in the mainstream media to declare personal ideology and partisan leanings, the goal of improved objectivity is more likely to be achieved through individual self-scrutiny and institutional honesty among those in authority. A reporter fully aware of his or her own relevant political and moral beliefs, and conscious of how those views influence what and how he or she reports, is likely to produce better journalism, in which both left and right get their due, without resorting to the bland, forced neutrality found in many publications seeking to conceal the beliefs of their staffs.

My only problem with this is that self-scrutiny is supposedly employed now. But as Edsall points out, it hasn’t worked at least not consistently.

A better solution, is to have an outside organization along the lines of Annenberg’s Fact Check rate individual reporters on a scale of issues. Perhaps more than one scale. Post those ratings in the byline or in a postscript to each reporter’s story. That way readers can account for bias when they read.

Is the reporter far to the left on social issues? That should be considered when they write about abortion rights. Is the reporter far to the right on free markets? That should be taken into account when the reporter discourses on regulatory issues.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask independent groups to rate reporters the way interest groups rate congressman. A simpler approach might be to have the reporters write an essay about their own beliefs which is linked to their byline. This shouldn’t be a list of awards or past jobs, but an essay about what that individual believes on issues of the day. These should be updated every year or so. Let reporters speak for themselves, but by all means force them to step out from behind the false claim of objectivity and say something about where they are really coming from.

There is a scientific maxim that the experimenter always affects the experiment. One can not pry into something without disturbing it. What’s true of sub-atomic particles applies to reporting as well. The only solution is to document the process carefully. Lay out one’s intentions and indicate how it relates to actual findings. What was the reporter’s hypothesis going into the story? Why choose this story and not some other story? Key to this kind of approach is brutal honesty about what one believes and expects to find prior to investigating the results. That can’t happen if reporters insist on being cyphers about their beliefs and intentions.

Liberal reporters have repeatedly failed to police themselves and repeatedly claimed to be unbiased when they demonstrably are not. The only solution is more sunlight in the process. For starters, make reporters tell the reading public who they are. Then their readers can decide just how unbiased the news they’re buying really is.

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Category: MSM & Bias |

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