Media Bias & Reader Bias Reflect Our Humanity

A month or so ago, I was sitting in the local coffee house, chatting with a guy I had met while putting together a story. He shared with me a quotation — which I don’t remember — that he felt was an insult to my profession. He didn’t share it to insult me, but because it reflected a bit of his worldview.

I surprised him. I agreed with the accuracy of the observation, and then I shared with him a story. During the last gubernatorial election, both my colleague at the newspaper and I exercised significant influence over what local readers learned about the candidates.

When Candidate A came to town to speak at an event, I covered it, noting key points and trying hard to accurately reflect what the candidate said without using language which reflected bias. My colleague, I had noticed, often used the word “claimed” when reporting on a candidate whose political positions weren’t consistent with his own. However, candidates he supported always “said” or “stated.” I didn’t want to be guilty of that crime.

When Candidate B came to town to speak at an event, my colleague was assigned to cover the event. He managed to do so without even mentioning the candidate. He did not snap a picture. He did not talk to the candidate. If the candidate spoke, he did not make note of it. It was as though Candidate B had never been there.

That set the tone for the rest of the election coverage. Candidate A had been pleased with my coverage and subsequently notified me when a campaign event was to take place. I never wrote another story, though I did — sometimes — show up to take a picture. More importantly, my colleague did not cover these events either. I argued — successfully — that it wasn’t fair to cover one candidate’s events and not cover the other candidate’s events, that to do so reflected bias.

When Candidate B came back to town, I covered the event, arguing that my colleague had already shown bias in his coverage and would undoubtedly do so a second time. I managed to write a story about Candidate B’s second visit that was recognized with an award by the Associated Press.

Every time a reporter tackles a story, the reporter brings to the story his or her own humanity, his or her own experiences and worldview, his or her own — yes, I will use the word — bias. That bias — that humanity — is reflected in the stories the reporter chooses. (Some are assigned, but most editors have more to do than drum up stories for their reporters.) It is reflected in the details a reporter includes and in the details a reporter excludes. Bias — humanity — is shown in word choice, in the structure of the story, in the way research is conducted.

I recently wrote on a controversial topic. I started by reading coverage on the topic by major newspapers and the Associated Press. Then I spoke with someone who had been advised not to speak with the press. Fortunately, I have an established relationship with this individual, who has a great deal at stake, and was able to have an informative, off-the-record conversation.

At that point, I talked with the editor and we outlined the issues we felt needed to be addressed due to the local impact. I contacted a couple key players, both of whom felt they had been burned by the press. I was able to convince one to provide written answers to questions. With the other, I was luckier because I have previously dealt with them in what they felt to be a fair manner. I was granted a personal interview.

After the interview, I started thinking about what I had learned. I could circle back and rehash the same stuff that others had already gnawed over with thoroughness — or I could find another angle. I made my arguments for both approaches with the editor and we decided together to go with a different angle.

If, as my sources alleged, they had been misrepresented by one of the major newspapers, I had nothing to gain by going head-to-head with that reporter. They are big; we are small. Big wins, hands down in the U.S. of A. The basic premise is they have more resources to do investigative work, and therefore are infallible. By approaching it from a different angle, I could explore some of the same issues without — to use a colloquialism — getting in a pissing match. I contacted one of the people who is responsible for mitigating the local risk and allowed his informed opinion to help me weigh the rest of what I had learned.

I was satisfied when I had finished. Questions still remain, and will for sometime yet, but I know I did the best I could at this point. I educated myself about the issue, but I did not go into my interviews with any agenda apart from getting the facts. I recognized that my sources were going to spin the information — that’s human nature — so I asked the same question from several different angles until I felt I understood the heart of the matter. Then, I did what I could to mitigate my bias by checking with my editor as I worked, and I closely edited my work, keeping it overnight to look at it a final time before filing it.

Here is the flip side of media bias: readers have biases, too. They come to stories with their own humanity, their own experiences and worldview, their own preconceptions. And so, sometimes — not always, but sometimes — media bias is actually reader bias. The reader says, “This does not agree with what I think, with what I have heard, with what I believe, and therefore the reporter is biased.”

Sadly, that has led lots of folks to seek out self-reinforcing “news” sources so they don’t have to consider ideas with which they disagree. This, in turn, has increasingly polarized our world and led to either-or thinking, which saddens me. We need one another, because we all have strengths and we all have weaknesses. If we pull together instead of against each other, we will be able to build on all of our strengths and mitigate all of our weaknesses.

I think recognizing our personal biases is the place to start.


What is Real?

Juliet thought a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Today, if she made that comment, a controversy would be unleashed. First of all, there would be a problem with the generalization; while there is a scent recognizable as “rose,” not all roses actually smell the same. Then there would be folks who have a problem with the whole identity aspect of the statement; names do matter — there is a huge difference between calling someone morbidly obese and saying the person has generous proportions; change a name and you change how something or someone is perceived.

Few, if any, would even remember that Juliet was actually saying, “I love a boy who will be rejected simply because he was born into the wrong family.” No one involved in the controversy unleashed by a young girl’s longing to get past cultural barriers will consider how she is affected or how the boy is affected. They will become entrenched in their positions and set out to annihilate one another.

Oh! Right! That is the dynamic that Shakespeare was exploring in one of his most popular tragedies, “Romeo and Juliet,” the way our allegiance to ideas can destroy what we love. When it happens in our personal lives, it can lead to remorse and personal transformation, but what happens when it plays itself out on a larger stage? Anytime groups of people are involved in this destructive pattern, the conflicts have a tendency to escalate.

I have been ranting for years about the destructive polarization we find in our nation today. I have been angry at every leader who has contributed — including the Catholic bishops who have misled the faithful in their dioceses, telling them to vote based on one issue only, which is not consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. [I believe they are going to be held accountable before God. After all, Jesus did say, “If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6, NIV).]

In recent months, it’s become glaringly apparent that information and misinformation have been used to reinforce entrenched allegiances and exacerbate the polarization. The GOP has denied the economic recovery to such an extent that 60% of folks who voted for Trump didn’t even know that economic indicators demonstrate we currently have a strong economy. I suppose that was a face-saving measure. After all, it would have been pretty humiliating to say, “Despite everything we did to thwart him, the current president’s administration has succeeded in cleaning up the mess made by the last Republican in office.”

Who benefits from this practice of denying facts? From denying the truth?

No one benefits. It’s that simple. No one benefits when important decisions are made as a result of misinformation. We create a self-perpetuating cycle of escalating violence until people are worn out by the pain and suffering, until there is nothing left from what anger has wrought except despair.

The Internet has a lot to do with the dissemination of misinformation. Folks can post anything they want, and fabrications can go viral, misinforming thousands — or perhaps millions — of people. However, distrust of the mainstream media also contributes. People are skeptical — due in part to the fact that it’s easy to label reporting which doesn’t reinforce our opinions as biased, but also due to the fact that bias does exist. What most people don’t realize is this: that bias is a reflection of our humanity, not as a result of a desire to mislead.

This blog reflects that bias. I am not Republican, and I have been appalled by some of the decisions made by elected officials who are Republican. Because some of these decisions have violated my core value system, I am hyper-alert to other transgressions. I cannot tell you nearly as much about what Democratic candidates said during the last interminable presidential campaign as I can tell you about the outrageous comments made by the president-elect. He offended me, and I watched him closely to make sure I had complete information regarding his unsuitability for the office he will — gag — hold.

That’s human nature. Because every reporter is human, every reporter is going to bring to every story values and biases that have nothing whatsoever to do with misleading or misinforming anyone. The filter through which they perceive information shapes the story they write. But, the same is true for all of us; unfortunately, few of us have the capacity to recognize this. Few of us can step back and take a good hard look at the way we process information.

So, what I am trying to say is this: Yes, the news we receive will be biased, and we’re going to hear things and read things we won’t like because we’re also biased. But, we have keep making the effort to educate ourselves; we need to reject “news” sources which are actually disseminating propaganda (or at least recognize the nature of the information we receive), and we need to be diligent in pursing stories that interest us — preferably by checking several sources.

Once we have educated ourselves, we need to make sure we are not using information to arm ourselves against others. We need to explore ways we can use the information we acquire to build bridges. For example, I will never be persuaded that cutting taxes for the wealthy or paying CEOs exorbitant salaries is beneficial to the common good — and that’s my criteria for good policy, something that works for the common good. However, I agree entirely that government has become so unwieldy it’s a joke. So, now, I have found common ground with my Republican friends — and I do have them, surprisingly — so how can we build on that point of agreement?

The more we work to educate ourselves and the more we work to build bridges, the more likely it is that we will avoid destroying what we love. And that, my friends, is real.