Reporters Shouldn’t Embrace Bias
For a long time, objectivity and impartiality were perceived to be noble and uncontroversial goals for journalists. Objectivity is straightforwardly appealing – we want information that is accurate and undistorted by reporters’ personal politics. However, there is of late some pushback against that view (often called ‘The View from Nowhere’, which has apparently become such common parlance in the industry that the Wikipedia entry focuses on the term’s use in journalism rather than Nagel’s book whose title inspired the movement). The idea, roughly, is that personal bias is unavoidable among journalists (and indeed the public in general). It is hypocritical to claim to offer impartial reporting because that impartiality can never be achieved; instead, reporters should simply embrace their normative perspectives and be up front about it and its influence on their work. But this move is a serious mistake, one that will subvert the central internal purpose of journalism and only serve to promote greater ignorance about the world.
Rejecting normatively influenced journalism might appear somewhat hypocritical. This blog, after all, is entirely devoted to exploring the normative issues related to recent news items, and many of us (myself included, in this very post no less) present strong normative stances on an issue. However, I would propose that we are not actually journalists – or at least, we are not reporters. We comment on the news, but do not do any actual reporting of news items; we rely mostly on external sites to provide the basic information for our analysis. There is some analogy to the opinion pages of traditional newspapers. But my objection is limited to normative influences on reporting itself, rather than opinion pages whose primary purpose is not to inform but, well, opinionate.
The primary purpose of reporting is, I would suggest, to make people aware of and understand current events. It is a primarily empirical, not normative, enterprise. Yet, the normative and the empirical are not easily separated in practice; as laid out in a piece on Vox.com, our political positions can have a strong influence on how we understand and interpret information. Interestingly, the divergent reaction to Vox.com’s launch is representative of competing views on what to do in reaction to this bias. Conservatives instantly (and fairly) picked up on its strong tendency to favor liberal positions (e.g., claiming that Obamacare has ‘won’). The implication is that it shouldn’t be so blatantly biased. Conversely, others have complained not at the content of its reporting but its hypocritical claim to be objectively explaining the facts and letting readers decide how to feel while still harboring clear liberal biases. Instead, the site should be honest about its liberal perspective and allow that to inform and influence its reporting.
A number of news organizations have similarly embraced this bias – some explicitly, like Redstate and the Daily Kos, others implicitly, like Fox News, the Huffington Post, and Salon. The latter sort might not put their political leanings in their mission statements, but they have clear reputations for bias that their reporters more or less endorse, deliberately obscuring the barrier between opinion and reporting. It’s also affecting idealized media; the recent HBO show The Newsroom presented Aaron Sorkin’s vision of ‘News 2.0’, where it is openly acknowledged that not every side is equal and reporting should reflect that. The result, though, is that the heroic fictional TV anchor just comes to resemble a liberal Bill O’Reilly, at one point comparing the Tea Party movement to the murderous, terroristic Taliban.
This is a worrisome development, one that draws the wrong lesson from the insight that everyone is everywhere biased. Granting that’s true, there are two further facts that make embracing bias absurd. First, biases not only change the tone of reporting but distort people’s understanding of the empirical facts. The research by Dan Kahan and colleagues discussed in that Vox.com article mentioned above confirms just this – people will process information in such a way that supports their prior political views. Journalists who embrace bias will fall prey to the same problems – discounting disconfirming evidence, overemphasizing confirming evidence, framing issues in ways that support their positions, and so on. What’s more, having ideologically-driven outlets will facilitate people’s ability to selectively patronize only outlets of their political leanings, further exacerbating confirmation bias. So bias subverts the laudable goal of making people more informed (the ostensible goal of reporting).
Second, while bias cannot be completely eliminated, it can be reduced. There are a variety of strategies available, both at the individual and societal level. Individually, after recognizing one’s bias, one can explicitly attempt to compensate by (say) taking disconfirming evidence seriously. One can also tune one’s language to avoid distorting terminology, carefully examine whether one is offering the fairest interpretation of both sides of an argument, and give space for views even if you find them mistaken. None of that is groundbreaking – they are the norms that have until recently been near-ubiquitous in serious journalism. And that’s representative of a successful social strategy for combating bias: create norms of bias-reduction that are widely accepted and undertaken. This encourages individuals to employ the sorts of strategies just noted; what’s more, it facilitates a selection effect where the journalists who can mitigate biases will be more successful (and prominent) than those who cannot.
Taken together, those two facts – media bias undermines the worthwhile purpose of reporting, and it can be reduced – imply that we should reject the recent move by some journalists towards embracing bias. Again, that’s not to say media outlets should never have normatively-influenced analysis. Opinion pages are fine, but they should (as is traditional) be sequestered from hard reporting as well as the sort of analysis that attempts to improve (non-normative) understanding of the issues. Clinging to traditions can sometimes get us into trouble, but this is one case where the traditions (of objective reporting) are entirely justified and worth preserving.