When people look for bias in a given media source, they will likely find it. It might not occur in every story, but it can be found in almost every organization.
However: does this perception of bias take away from what the writer was trying to communicate? Does the writer get the information across? Is the perceived bias central to the story, or does it provide just provide a sort of editorial shading?
The problem arises - and I know this is a grey area - when people deliberately inject their politics into the news, or - worse - whore themselves out to a party as a journalist-mole. It happens a lot more frequently in places like DC than happy little Toledo, but there are journalists on both sides of the fence whose loyalties lie with political parties instead of truth.
It is unreasonable for people to assume that journalists can be mindless automatons and divorce themselves from their political views. However, journalists have an obligation to be fair, and to present both sides of an argument. They also have an obligation to disclose any connection to the story, or - better yet - pass on a story to which they are too close.
As a writer I have been accused of being everything from a communist to a right-wing shill, sometimes by different critics on the same piece. I pride myself on my objectivity, but there will be times where my politics peek through.
The litmus test is not the politics of the writer, but the ability of the writer to communicate the truth with a minimum of bias. I surf the Web, radio programs, and news shows to get a variety of information; when, for example, FOX or NPR gets blatantly political and irritates me, I change the channel. I know going in that a given media source might cross that line, and I move on when the given media source fails to deliver what I am seeking.
(Uh-oh; I just used the term "move on;" could this be a subtle hint of bias?)
As an example, let's consider the neo Nazi group NSM, which I have spent a lot of time over the last 2 weeks covering on this blog and in several periodicals. I could have had fun and made the members look like idiots (not very hard, given their penchant for wearing retro Nazi clothing), but for the most part on this blog I played it straight; I was especially conscious of keeping my bias against neo-Nazi politics out of articles that I wrote for the Toledo Free Press and Clamor. Now, if you look hard enough, you can probably find a few places on my blog where I let a little anti-Nazi commentary sneak through, but I think that I treated them fairly overall.
That being said, some have criticized me (especially my this blog) for having a bias toward covering the protesters, and this is evidence that I am some kind of closet propagandist (this quote from "Dick" in Toledo yesterday):
Why are you such an apoligetic [sic] for these people whom caused such destruction and mayhem?
I have tried to find things to write about that the mainstream media skipped. Is this, then, evidence of a "liberal" bias, or am I just looking for different angle? Writers who stray away from the mainstream often get accused of having bias simply because they cover unusual stories.
Now, this is not an apology for egregious example of bias, like Condoleeza Rice being photo-edited to look sort of demonic. Bust them for it where you see it, but remember that sometimes people are just lazy. Perhaps in the above case someone was trying to compensate for a crappy photo by enhancing the contrast or coloring.
The media coverage on Cindy Sheehan, in my opinion, has been vicious and quite biased toward the right. Set aside for a moment your feelings and opinions about her and do a Google News search. Do you think there is a "liberal" bias, or are the right-wingers who demonize her winning out?
Here is a sampling of some of the most inflammatory headlines (taken from the first page of listings in the Google News search):
*"Cindy Sheehan Indulges in Happy Fantasies of Perpetual Safety"
*"Military Families 'Disgusted' by Sheehan"
*"Cindy Sheehan's Latest Publicity Stunt at White House Denounced by ... "
*"Ugh! Not Another Cindy Sheehan Article"
Granted, Cindy Sheehan tends to bring out a special kind of anger, but do you think there is a friendly bias in the news toward her?
(Note: I am throwing this out for discussion, and am not endorsing Ms. Sheehan, or offering any opinion on her mission. However, I recently interviewed her, and found her to be much different from the way she is painted in the mainstream media)
By the way - note the fifth paragraph of this post - I put the word "communist" first; now does this mean that I politically lean to the left, that I consciously tried to be objective by ackowledging a bias, or that I am a rightist because I named "communist" first?
That could be interpreted in a lot of ways, but I'll let you in on a little secret - I have an obsession with alphabetization, and "C" just has to come before "R" in my twisted mind.
It comes down to the finished product - if a journalist does sloppy work, or their work is blatantly lopsided in favor of a particular view, then that journalist should face public scrutiny.
I have friends in the media on both sides of the political aisle, and they are dedicated to the one end that really matters: truth.
Sometimes perceived bias can be attributed to laziness; it is easy to repeat the same things that you hear from other media, or to parrot the crap that gets sent out in press releases.
Personally, if I am covering a press conference, I would rather interview the person sweeping up the room afterwards than the talking heads at the microphones. Sometimes you get better information in unlikely places.
Finally, a quote from someone whose prose will always humble me:
The only thing I ever saw that came close to "objective journalism" was a closed-circuit TV setup that watched shoplifters in the General Store at Woody Creek, Colorado. I always admired that machine, but I noticed that nobody paid any attention to it until one of those known, heavy, out-front shoplifters came into the place... but when that happened, everybody got so excited that the thief had to do something quick, like buy a green popsicle or a can of Coors and get out of the place immediately.
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.
This essay is an outgrowth of a conversation on Toledo Talk, the Glass City's most plugged-in and feistiest blog. If you don't regularly visit the site, you miss out on excellent discussions of local, national, and international news, plus great lines like the one that BrianinFlorida dished out toward a local politician recently: "worthless braintard."