Got Bias?

I listen to NPR and I find it to be an overall evenhanded source of information about a variety of issues and events in American society. I have friends who would disagree. I chalk this difference up to the fact that my friends are situated a bit more right than I, and thus there is more to the left of where they stand. By comparison, I am something of a moderate, and so, there is more to the right of where I stand, as well as more to the left. Knowing full well how this favors my outlook, I like to characterize this place I occupy as the Golden Mean, which is a term derived from Aristotelian ethics. Basically, it is the middle place between too much and too little, a place of balance that Aristotle equated with virtue.

Putting the Golden Mean aside, the other day I was listening to NPR and I heard a report by their ombudsmen, Alicia C. Shepherd, about bias and the media. In this report, Ms. Shepherd mentioned that “between June 9 and Oct. 19, 2008 [her] office received 282 emails specifically accusing NPR of favoring Obama and 252 emails accusing NPR of favoring McCain.” She further said she had received hundreds of more email that charged the network with being too conservative or too liberal. As the report continued, Ms. Shepherd went on to give further information and statistics regarding NPR’s coverage during this election season, the summation of which was that both candidates received roughly equal coverage, and if anything, McCain received slightly more.

Beyond the amount of coverage, Ms. Shepherd also acknowledged that a complete picture regarding media bias must address “how a broadcast network covers political candidates.” Elaborating on this, she gave a few examples of how different types of coverage can leave different types of impressions upon the listeners, even when the coverage is analytical and not promotional in nature.

Perhaps the most illuminating factor that Ms. Shepherd addressed regarding media bias was the related issue of listener bias, which is to say that people hear through their values and convictions, which influences their impressions of how content was presented. Not wanting to place the impression of bias solely upon the listeners, however, Ms. Shepherd referred to a report conducted by Timothy Groseclose, a political science professor, which stated that 18 of the 20 major media outlets were just left of center in relation to the average American voter.

In the end, what I found interesting regarding Ms. Shepherd’s report was the location of bias. Is it something in the media or something in the listener? My own personal conviction, one that I think was implied by Ms. Shepherd’s report, is that though journalists are professionals who are trained to approach news coverage objectively, no one is ever completely free from values and viewpoints when it comes to handling and presenting information.

So, do you think complete objectivity is possible? Given human nature, what should we reasonably expect from journalists and the news media? How sensitive and alert are you to your own biases? How do you strive to be as truthful or objective as possible? Are there news sources you recommend, and do you recommend them because they are fairly objective or might they just align with your convictions?

3 Responses to “Got Bias?”

  1. Roger Green  

    Actually, I’m quite aware of my biases.

    Keith Olbermann I tend to agree with, but I grew weary of him nonetheless. Anyone who outyells to make their point, regardless of the truthfulness of their point, is out with me.

    I suppose Bill Moyers may have a left bias, but when you’re challenging the status quo, and it’s been a W. staus quo…

    Actually, the best news reporting has been the Daily Show. I’ll give you but one example. McCain gives his acceptance speech for the GOP nom. The MSM dutifully reports it as “news”. Only the Daily Show bothered to investigate and note how much of it was taken directly from GWB’s acceptance speech of 2000. Now that’s news!

    Generally speaking, I think the news should be taking a more adversarial position with politicians. Some local reporter got kudos for asking the hard questions of (I think) McCain, but my position at the time and now is that’s what the reporters OUGHT to have done.

    Reporters got to be chicken after 9/11 and it took a long time for them to get their proverbial cojones back.

  2. Anthony Velez  

    The thing about being adversarial is that it is a posture that doesn’t easily fit with objectivity, not that it can’t. If by adversarial you mean that a reporter should be more aggressive in asking questions when it appears that politicians are not being direct and forthcoming, then yes, I suppose a more adversarial approach is called for. On the other hand, adversarial often means the opposing side or position, and if reporters go at people with this posture I don’t think it will provide clarity and understanding.

    I think the basic idea is that reporters are supposed to be friends of the truth, people who report the facts. The problem is that the relationship between truth and facts on the one hand and the role of interpretation on the other is itself problematic. The key question here is how much do facts actually speak for themselves, and how much is the significance of a fact contingent upon a person’s values and underlying beliefs.

    In relation to all this, I wonder if it would be helpful if reporters intentionally highlighted where ambiguities exist regarding how events can be understood. Of course, this kind of reporting requires patience on the part of the listening audience, which does not fit well with the media, and its orientation on readily digestible chunks of information.

  3. Roger Green  

    Adversarial in the sense that they talk about the nuances. Obama has a big plan for the economy – but he has no dollar amount. The news too often would state the first part as fed to them, but not bother with the second part.
    The govt said “Trust us” when we went into Iraq. Somehow, the media seemed to say, “OK, we trust you.” Not their jobs. They have to ask the WHY questions.