Is It So Wrong To Admit That Journalists Have Opinions Too?

from the hiding-them-doesn't-change-that dept

There was a big kerfuffle in the journalism world over the weekend, as it was revealed late Friday that the Washington Post had rushed out new "social media guidelines" leading one editor to delete his Twitter account, and another to joke that under the new guidelines, his Twitter account would only discuss "the weather and dessert recipes." This isn't the first time news organizations have generated attention for coming up with restrictive social media guidelines. And, of course, one of the more ridiculous aspects of all of this was that the Washington Post didn't reveal what those guidelines are, leading to a ton of speculation and leaving it to a competing news organization to publish the actual guidelines. A big part of the problem here was the lack of transparency from the Washington Post in the first place...

While we're on the subject, the whole thing seems based on this platonic ideal of journalism that involves the objective, unbiased reporter. The guidelines basically tell reporters and editors that they shouldn't say anything that suggests they actually have an opinion on something, and the editor who deleted his Twitterstream did so because it expressed an opinion on certain news events. But, it's time we got over this. Just because people pretend to be objective, it doesn't make them objective. Just because reporters claim to be unbiased, it doesn't make them unbiased.

Yes, it's great to strive to be as fair and impartial as possible. It's important to present as much as is reasonable as possible. But the bias is there. Pretending it isn't is ridiculous -- and, at times, damaging. It's what leads reporters to go overboard in trying to "present both sides of the story" even if one side is completely ridiculous. Reporters have too much trouble saying "wait, that's wrong." They just present what was said and move on, without ever digging into the truth. In the quest for impartiality, they've actually gotten away from providing accuracy and honesty. I'd much rather have reporters clearly state their bias and opinion, and then let others argue the points out.

And, of course, reporters and editors have always had opinions. It's why they have an editorial page, after all. But, even more important, it's bias and opinion that goes into determining what story makes the front page, or the middle page or gets spiked. It's about how the "facts" of the story are presented. There's bias everywhere. Asking reporters to bite their tongue and not actually say what they think doesn't negate the bias, and it doesn't help readers/viewers/listeners get any closer to what's real. It's just a way of avoiding responsibility, avoiding the community, and avoiding doing a good job. In the meantime, as newer publications (mostly online) do away with the ridiculous idea that a party can be fully impartial, the community of people who consume and share and spread and make and comment on the news are going there. Because that's where "the news" is best presented.


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    Dark Helmet (profile), Sep 28th, 2009 @ 7:59am

    I've disagreed with you on this before, I believe

    So why have you not immediately conformed to my way of thinking? :)

    "it was revealed late Friday that the Washington Post had rushed out new "social media guidelines""

    And those are stupid "rules" born of an overinflated feeling of importance by our media members. They truly believe that they are this "fourth wing" of the government they keep going on about, and that they have some type of image to preserve, despite the fact that in recent studies some 70+% of respondents indicated that they believe reporters and news reports are biased and bought.

    But that our reporters have opinions and bias doesn't change my opinion that IN THEIR WORK they should strive for an even, unbiasd account of facts and happenings. Analysis and editorial are for the editorial section or the sports page. When Reporter A tells me about the riots in Iran, I don't want to know what he thinks about it, I want to know exactly what happened and maybe a quote or two by trusted experts/advisors on some of the less clear aspects (the WHY, in other words).

    Reporters shouldn't opine, they should strive to report.

    "But, it's time we got over this. Just because people pretend to be objective, it doesn't make them objective. Just because reporters claim to be unbiased, it doesn't make them unbiased."

    Well, I don't hear a great deal of reporters claiming they aren't biased, just that they are keeping the bias out of the reporting, which is their job. It seems to me that allowing for viewpoints in a "report" is the crack in the window pane that can eventually get bigger and bring the whole glass value of factual reporting crashing around us. One of the chief reasons I am so disatisfied with current media is the level of bias and opinion, particularly when it comes of as trite and/or bought (see Fox News of NBC Nightly News for examples on both ends of the political specturm).

    "But the bias is there. Pretending it isn't is ridiculous"

    But it's only there noticably when the reporter gets away from reporting. If our Reporter A tells me that people are rioting in Tehran, with an approximate number of rioters, police presence, and injuries/deaths, where is the room for opinion or bias? It's only when the reporter decides to try and tell me WHY that is happening that the room for bias emerges. THAT'S what I want these media types to stay away from. I'll let the editorials try and tell me why.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Sep 28th, 2009 @ 8:19am

      Re: I've disagreed with you on this before, I believe

      I'd say Mike was more upset about the ham handed way of trying to stifle bias.

       

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      Eliot, Sep 28th, 2009 @ 8:35am

      Re: I've disagreed with you on this before, I believe

      @DH: Well said.

      Making Journalists delete their own personal blogs (in whatever form) is simply rediculous. Everyone has an opinion, and they should have a right to express it. For journalists, however, it should be kept as far away from their reporting as possible. As entertaining as reading TechDirt is, I can never take it as serious reporting. Similarly, I can't really take CNN, Fox News, or NBC News very seriously. They are trying to get headlines and end up dropping fairly insidious forms of bias into their reporting.

       

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      John Doe, Sep 28th, 2009 @ 8:41am

      Re: I've disagreed with you on this before, I believe

      I don't want to know what he thinks about it, I want to know exactly what happened and maybe a quote or two by trusted experts/advisors on some of the less clear aspects (the WHY, in other words).

      Ah, but the choice of experts can still be biased. Just look at the healthcare debate. There are "experts" on both sides.

      If they are allowed to publish their opinion in blogs and such, at least we would know which "side" they stand on. Not that it isn't pretty clear most of the time anyway.

       

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      Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Sep 28th, 2009 @ 1:14pm

      Re: I've disagreed with you on this before, I believe

      I usually agree with you Dark Helmet but I'm going to have to disagree with you here.

      One, even when someone is reporting facts it can be bias. For example, the G20 thing in Pitt, all I heard about was the anarchists protesters. Out of a few thousand protesters there were a handful of anarchists but that's all you heard about. It made it sound like downtown was post-apocalyptic.

      Two, that's not what Mike is trying to say. What he is trying to say is they need to let reporters look into the BS that people are pumping out. As it stands now, in the interest of unbiased reporting, both sides get put out there without any questions at all. For the second one side gets questioned it's called bias and bad reporting. Sometimes that's a good thing. Look at Techdirt, this is obviously Mike's opinion but he douse a better job getting to the details than most unbiased reporters. It also allows me to see "real" reporting and point out the errors that they make.

       

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        Dark Helmet (profile), Sep 28th, 2009 @ 1:34pm

        Re: Re: I've disagreed with you on this before, I believe

        "I usually agree with you Dark Helmet but I'm going to have to disagree with you here."

        I think that when you more fully consider some subtleties, you will still agree with me here, as well, based on what I said. Observe:

        "One, even when someone is reporting facts it can be bias. For example, the G20 thing in Pitt, all I heard about was the anarchists protesters."

        You are inadvertently agreeing with me. Which part of what you stated was the bias? My guess is that it is the word "anarchist", which despite initial perception is not a who, what, where, or when. It is a veiled WHY. That is the reporter's attempt to tell you WHY they are protesting/demonstrating. And that is where I said bias would appear.

        "Two, that's not what Mike is trying to say. What he is trying to say is they need to let reporters look into the BS that people are pumping out."

        Agreed, but you can do that without bias or opinion. That is the wonderful thing about actual facts, not the "facts" used by politicians. Actual facts are...you know...factual. There is no disputing them. They're facts, and when poitican "A" says the sky is green, reporter "B" can say, "No, fuckhead, it's blue and here are the evidence of FACTS to back that up". Real facts aren't generally in dispute. What we argue about here at great length are disputed and non-empiracal figures and studies. That's also where bias creeps in, and where it's actually okay. But that isn't reporting.

        "It also allows me to see "real" reporting and point out the errors that they make."

        Sorry, but I disagree. I truly do love this site, but what Mike does isn't reporting, it's thoughtfull analysis and extrapolation. It's hugely important, but it isn't reporting.

         

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    zaven (profile), Sep 28th, 2009 @ 8:16am

    Is there actually someone out there who thinks the Washington Post is unbiased. Now there's a funny story.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Sep 28th, 2009 @ 10:22am

      Re:

      In line with your comment a quote from the linked article:

      tarnish our journalistic credibility

      What credibility?

       

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    interval, Sep 28th, 2009 @ 8:17am

    @dh: "If our Reporter A tells me that people are rioting in Tehran, with an approximate number of rioters, police presence, and injuries/deaths, where is the room for opinion or bias?"

    Here's where insidious bias creeps in: Over the week there were riots at the G8 in Pittsburgh, and health reform demonstrations at the Mall in DC. The riots were clearly violent, with store windows being smashed on Thursday.

    Over the weekend, there was a massive health care demonstration on the Mall in front of the Wash. Monument. Its was quite peaceful.

    I was appalled at how most of the news outlets characterized the Pitts. riots as "some kids got out of control" and the Mall protest was "unruly and manned by uninformed anti-Obama malcontents."

     

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      Flyfish, Sep 28th, 2009 @ 8:27am

      Re:

      Plenty of room for bias as anyone who followed the widely varying estimates of how many people demonstrated on the National Mall on 9/12/2009 would know. Estimates ranged from a few thousand to 2 million depending on the bias of the reporters and/or their organization. Suffice to say it was more than 5-10 and almost certainly less than 5 million. Plenty of room to interpret in support of your personal political philosophy.

       

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    herodotus (profile), Sep 28th, 2009 @ 8:17am

    Accepting that reporters have opinions is one thing. But removing the already weak expectation that they at least attempt to overcome their biases is not likely to lead to better journalism.

    I realize that, to many people, it is completely impossible to be anything like objective. But there is a world of difference between Thucidides, who was biased, but who strove strenuously to overcome his biases, and Naomi Klein, who doesn't even realize that she is biased. This is part of why the former is still being read over 2000 years after he died, while the latter will be forgotten within 10 years of her last publication.

     

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    Rabbit80, Sep 28th, 2009 @ 8:53am

    The Lily Allen affair was not reported without bias here in the UK... I didn't see a single story in the mainstream news that presented ANYTHING that wasn't biased in the industrys favour! So - no encouraging words from the British press for you I'm afraid Mike. :(

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 28th, 2009 @ 8:56am

    "But it's only there noticably when the reporter gets away from reporting. If our Reporter A tells me that people are rioting in Tehran, with an approximate number of rioters, police presence, and injuries/deaths, where is the room for opinion or bias?"

    Let's start with the fact that they're reporting on Tehran. They could be covering healthcare, the WoT or a thousand other stories. Just the amount of air time to give to each story is _huge_. Even if you removed all other bias from Fox News, the fact that they spend 60%+ of their time on terrorism stories will keep their viewers voting for Republicans who promise to protect them from the "terrists" by getting rid of all those nasty civil liberties.

     

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      interval, Sep 28th, 2009 @ 9:47am

      Re:

      @AC: "Even if you removed all other bias from Fox News..."

      As soon as the bias from MSNBC and their shock of realizing plain old American's have a mistrust of publicly-run health options gets smoothed out as well I'm sure the news will be Jake.

       

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      John Doe, Sep 28th, 2009 @ 10:01am

      Re:

      Would those civil liberties be the same ones that the liberals are now trying to keep getting rid of and even get rid of more?

       

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    Anonymous1, Sep 28th, 2009 @ 9:02am

    _. Even if you removed all other bias from Fox News, the fact that they spend 60%+ of their time on terrorism stories will keep their viewers voting for Republicans

    Hey idiot. Remove the bias from your comment. Either cite sources on that statistic too, or STFU. The fact is, the majority of news reporters probably have strong opinions, be it talking heads, analysts, invetstigative reporters, bloggers, or the sports reporter. Investigative reporters especially need to try however, the key word being try, to keep their opinions/feelings out of the news story. Of course how they view an issue will shape their reporting, it just shouldn't rule it. In other words, if you don't think you can keep your bias in check, don't do the job. That should be the ideal, IMHO. What happens is of course open to debate....

     

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    NullOp, Sep 28th, 2009 @ 9:22am

    Opinions

    Journalists have opinions. No question about it. However, opinions do not belong in reported news. Blogs are a good place for opinions as are newspaper columns. Basically its a great misnomer to call reporting journalism. Journalism refers to the keeping of a journal e.g. a record of ones daily life from a subjective point-of-view.

    What we read in the news these days in very much sensationalism, conjecture, guess work and lies. Very little quality reporting goes on these days.

     

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    DaveL (profile), Sep 28th, 2009 @ 9:53am

    Why journalism is so bad

    Much of the problem of modern journalism stems from the attempt to be "unbiased". This is impossible - reporters and editors are human, they always have their own opinions. It's folly to pretend otherwise.

    See http://mugwumpery.com/?p=24

     

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    Chris Morris, Sep 28th, 2009 @ 10:07am

    "The contents of our news reports in no way represent the opinions of our staff, editors or journalists, but are a true relection of our corporate hidden agenda."

     

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    Misanthropist (profile), Sep 28th, 2009 @ 10:07am

    Well, ya, its "wrong" cause that's how they are "better"

    The "professional" journalists are trying to convince the world that you should pay for professional news exactly becasue its supposed to not be tainted. They have to non-professional journalists (which share a small cross section wiht bloggers) by portraying them as incapable of removing their bias from their reporting.

    Now, oviously (sic) this is complete bullshit. But the papers long ago found out they could shovel bullshit all over the public.. and have been doing so for ages. Why would they stop now when they (they that they) need it the most?

     

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    Sallo (profile), Sep 28th, 2009 @ 11:23am

    Just the facts!!!

    I have no problem with journalists and reporters offering their opinions, but how about providing me with facts of the story first. Anymore it seems that the media just wants to deliver an agenda of some sort.

    Can you say Dan Rather or how about Fox News? Dan Rather for the way he went after G.W. Bush and Fox News for the way they go after Obama.

    So give me the truth, to the best of your ability, behind the story and then offer me your bias or opinion.

    Ok mass media, facts first!

     

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    Alan Gerow (profile), Sep 28th, 2009 @ 11:29am

    I never trust a source that claims to be unbiased. I am much more likely to trust a source when I can previously ascertain their biases, because then I can begin to account for that bias in their reporting. By shielding reporters from the world and pretending their minds are somehow trained by the most elite of Vulcan scholars to have no emotion or bias does more to erode public trust in their information than allowing their reporters to be people.

    I don't know who that reporter is ... I don't know what they really think of a topic & how that's going to subconsciously affect their word choice and weighing of fact importance or interpretations of information ... I don't know what their personal credibility is. By allowing reporters to show their biases in their personal space, that will make their professional writing more credible to me (personally), because it will give their point-of-view context that I can measure the trust-o-meter (patent-pending) against.

    But then again, they've shown they don't really care what I think. And evidently, they don't want me know what their reporters are thinking either.

     

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    Cecil, Sep 28th, 2009 @ 3:49pm

    Objectivity = redistributing press releases.

     

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    Gene Cavanaugh, Sep 29th, 2009 @ 6:40pm

    Journalism

    Normally I agree with Mike, but here he is dead wrong.
    I agree that the reporter must sometimes show bias, and that is good; it lets us know what reporter to get rid of. And, at times, the reporter sees something that is so clearly wrong it requires an opinion - see Edward R. Murrow on the nut, Joe McCarthy - there it is justified (barely).
    As a general rule, though, reporters are experts on journalism, not the news they are reporting, and inserting an opinion (due normally to a completely ridiculous conceit) serves to obscure, not inform.
    That, I think, is the main thing killing journalism.

     

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