Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Holding up a mirror to our bias

A new website,, is allowing regular folks to vote on whether particular news stories are biased right or left. As you can see from the images at right (or from the website itself), these aren't binary verdicts. Rather, sliders indicate the degree to which a collective readership believes a particular story leans left or right.

It's an interesting idea. I'm not sure it will have much standalone appeal. It would be more useful if the ratings were integrated into the original content. Like when you're reading a blog and can see that one post got 115 Diggs and another only 4. Those kind of indicators become handy guideposts to help you quickly locate the most interesting content. Similarly, Skewz ratings would be a great tool if they were embedded directly into articles on news websites themselves. How cool would that be? As a reader, you'd get an immediate indication of where the stories were coming from.

That will never happen, of course. Can you imagine the New York Times or CNN folding anything into their sites that seemed to suggest they weren't being 100% objective? Of course not. Which is why I like this site for another, more profound reason: For the very fact that it provides hard-to-ignore feedback to the mainstream media that, no matter how much we try to be objective, and no matter how much we believe we're being objective, there are very few readers out there who believe we are.

When blogs and other forms of new media started hitting the scene, my friends working in the mainstream media resoundly trashed them for their bias. They didn't constitute real journalism, my friends would say, because they weren't objective.

I argued back that there were certainly many points on which the MSM could challenge the journalistic merits of the bloggers emerging at the time. But objectivity wasn't one of them. The traditional media, I argued, has never been objective.

Needless to say, I didn't get many converts to my way of thinking. And it's certainly not a point of view I would have agreed on before I'd been out of journalism for a while.

Traditional reporters resist the idea that they are biased because they confuse the concept of "having a bias" with "having an agenda." For the sake of this argument, I'll agree that most traditional reporters do not have agendas. Most reporters do see their duty as finding out what's happening in the world and reporting on it without slanting it.

But the thing is: Not having an agenda is not the same as not having a bias.

Let me backtrack for a moment. "Bias" is probably too loaded a term. Let's use "framework" instead. Everyone has a framework they use to organize their understanding of the world. A set of assumptions, if you will, that tells them: This is important; that not so much. This person's point of view carries weight and should be paid attention to; that person's less so. This event will have meaningful ripple effects in the world at large; that one fewer.

We reporters have traditionally believed we weren't biased because we believed our frameworks were accurate representations of reality. It was easy to buy in to that belief, because the number of voices out there were limited, and most of those voices shared the same framework. If all journalists more or less saw the world in the same way, it was easy to believe our collective framework, our collective way of viewing the world, was the one true, unbiased, way out there.

The explosion of voices and perspectives made possible by the Internet, however, is exposing that belief for the fallacy that it is. There is no single way of looking at the world. The act of choosing a framework (or simply buying in to one created by those who came before us), then, becomes an act of bias. It becomes an act of deciding that some things are more important than others.

Take all the brouhaha over Sarah Palin right now. How many news outlets out there are pounding away at the story about Palin and "the Bridge to Nowhere." Many. Next question: Why are they devoting so much energy to this story (over other stories they could be pursuing)? Answer: Because they believe this story is more important than others. That ordering of importance is the result of framework that asserts: "A politician misrepresenting the truth is an important phenomenon, more important than others that we could be reporting on."That framework necessarily has a bias. There are plenty of individuals out there who don't agree with the assertion that a politician's misrepresentations are more important than other aspects of their career, beliefs, etc....

It's not that they believe that misrepresentations are totally unimportant. There are few people out there would would say the media shouldn't report when a politician strays from the facts. But different people would disagree over how much coverage a specific straying warrants. Some people would look at the amount of coverage being generated over the Bridge to Nowhere and say it's exactly right. Some would say it's a bit too much. Some a lot too much. Some not quite enough. Some not even close to enough. Each of these different assessments is a product of the framework with which a particular individual sees the world. Each represents a bias about what is more or less important.

So where am I going with this?

A key to surviving and thriving in the future of journalism is to understand and embrace the fact that we have frameworks that organize our understandings of the world--and, therefore, that we have biases, biases about what is more and less important. We need to embrace this and acknowledge this because our readers already believe this about us--and won't trust anyone who tries to deny it.

Going forward, trust will be a driver of loyalty. Readers who trust you will stick with you. Readers who don't trust you won't. This doesn't mean that readers have to agree with you. Trust isn't a necessarily a product of how much they like what you say. It's more a result of whether they think you can be believed.

Think about your own circle of friends, for example. There are probably people you trust more than others. Your level of trust probably doesn't have as much to do with how much you agree with a particular person than with how much you believe they are a straight-shooter. You're far more likely to trust someone you don't agree with who, as far as you can tell, has personal integrity, than someone who seems to agree with you but always seems just a bit shifty.

So what does embracing and acknowledging our frameworks mean, in practice? It means just that: Owning up to our frameworks. It doesn't mean going to the extremes and branding every news outlet as an agent of opinion, like The Nation or The National Review. But it does mean letting go of our defensiveness on this point. It means listening to people who challenge our frameworks. Not dismissing them, simply because they're asserting we're biased.

Some traditional journalists may resist this because of the deeply ingrained belief that to concede bias is to somehow concede failure. But I don't think it is. I think that owning up to our frameworks will actually make us stronger journalists. In some cases, it will open us up to new ways of looking at the world that deepen and expand our reporting. In other cases, it will simply enable a lively discussion to flow from a piece we've reported. In either case, in all cases, however, it will enable our audiences to receive richer, more complete understandings of the world we live in. And, after all, isn't that what we are hoping to achieve, as journalists?

No comments: