On Media Bias and Other Bugaboos

30 Aug

      As someone who was worked in journalism for a number of years, I’m frequently amused by claims of “media bias” and the alleged “agendas” that journalists supposedly possess.
      Now, while certain media companies may have an agenda that effects how their employees do their job, most decent, individual journalists are not driven by a desire to inflict their own particular points of view upon the public. What they are looking for is to report on stories that are deemed “newsworthy,” particularly by their editors or producers. If there is any bias going on among most mainstream reporters, it’s in what constitutes being “newsworthy.”
      To give an example of how most professional journalists think and operate, I’ll go back 20 years to when I was in school studying journalism. It was during a summer session that I, along with my classmates, were tasked by the instructor to venture out across the campus and conduct some interviews. The Democratic presidential convention was going on at this time and they had just nominated Al Gore as the vice presidential candidate to Bill Clinton (for those of you too young to remember him, Al Gore is the man who invented the internet and discovered global warming; he was later revealed to actually be a cyborg with no visible trace of human personality).
      In any case, the class’s assignment was to go around the school, interview at least three people for their opinions on Gore’s nomination, then come back and write up a story about what the reaction was to this news on campus. Since this was summer and the school was somewhat sparsely populated, my classmates and I all drifted down to the student center where the greatest number of people were likely to have congregated.
      Walking inside the student center, I grabbed the first person I passed and asked him what he thought of Al Gore’s nomination for vice president. His reply was “Who?” I got similar reactions from the next two people I talked to. They either didn’t know who Al Gore was or they simply didn’t care. Looking around, I could see by the confused, somewhat distressed looks on the faces of my fellow journalism students, that they were getting similar responses from everybody they had stopped to interview. But being eager and dedicated young journalists in training, this did not sit well with them as they continued to interview person after person hoping for better responses. I, however, being a lazy, shiftless, degenerate, quit after the requisite three people I was supposed to interview and immediately went back to the classroom and wrote up my story, which basically said: “The people around here don’t know nothin’ and they don’t care about nothin’.”
      But the interesting thing was, my fellow journalism students stayed around the student center continuing to interview people – some for up to an hour after I had left – until they finally each found three people who had some kind of opinion on Al Gore. They did not care if the person being interviewed loved Gore or hated him. They just wanted to find someone who could speak semi-intelligently about him so they could write how people around the university had these strong opinions.
      They all finally got what they needed and came back to write the standard reaction piece that I’m sure you’ve been reading ever since the Republicans recently nominated Paul Ryan as their vice presidential candidate for this year’s election… “So and so thinks the VP nominee will be a valuable addition to the ticket but such and such says that the VP nominee is terrible and will hurt the ticket, etc. etc…”
      The point is, my fellow would-be journalists did not care that much what view was being expressed about Al Gore. What they did care about was that someone express some kind of strong view because that was what was expected in such a reaction piece. Now, technically, what these other students wrote was just as factual as what I wrote, they hadn’t made up anything. But it was also less accurate. It gave a false impression about just how engaged the average person on campus was when it came to politics.
      The truth is that most of the people interviewed were college students and, like most college students, they probably spent most of their four years of higher education drunk, dumb and disinterested in the world at large (come to think of it, not all that bad a way to spend four years). But writing something like that is not what editors really want to see when they send you out to get reaction on a political story, even if it’s the truth. It’s probably not even what most readers want to see because it may remind them they’re drunk, dumb and disinterested as well and what do you need a newspaper to tell you that for?
      So, in the end, most professional journalists I’ve come across are not motivated by any great bias to influence people one way or the other. But they are often motivated by a kind of cramped, conventional thinking that determines what is “newsworthy” by standard expectations. Information that doesn’t meet with these expectations, even if it’s true and maybe even important, often gets discarded because it simply doesn’t fit into comfortable notions of what the news is supposed to be.
      And that may prove to be a more noxious problem than media bias ever was.


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