October 19, 2008

My Bias re: (my understanding of) Media Bias

One of the first things I wrote for The Rhetorica Network in the spring of 2002 was my Media/Political Bias page. It draws more readers than any other part of the site except for the main weblog. It is the basis for my chapter in 21st Century Communications to be published by Sage Publications in early 2009. And that chapter will be the springboard to another project that I will announce by the end of this semester.

I think a theory of structural bias explains journalistic behavior better than simplistic charges of political bias, many of which are strategic maneuvers in the game of politics rather than cogent analysis.

Long-time Rhetorica readers already know this history. I’m mentioning it this morning because Clark Hoyt, Public Editor for The New York Times, quoted me this morning in his examination of charges of bias in Times’ political reporting. Here’s my bit of it:

“Journalism is not brain surgery; it’s more difficult than that,” said Andrew Cline, an assistant professor of journalism at Missouri State University, who has written on the perception of bias in news coverage. He said it was impossible for a reporter, in a single article, “to cover a situation in a way that everyone involved sees themselves the way they understand themselves.” News coverage has to be judged for fairness over a period of time, he said.

In political coverage, the accusations are always that the reporter or publication has ideological or party bias. But Cline has written that journalists have a whole set of professional biases that have nothing to do with politics. Journalists are biased toward conflict, toward bad news because it is more exciting than good news, and, obviously, toward what is new. When Obama was the new candidate on the presidential scene, The Times did some tough reporting on his background and record. But that was a long time ago, and memories fade. Palin was new much more recently, so the tough reporting on her happened closer to the general election, leading her supporters to complain that The Times was picking on her and giving Obama a pass.

Journalism is a craft not a profession, which is a good thing. My joke (or crack) about brain surgery should not be taken literally. Instead it highlights what is terribly difficult about journalism as a form of public expression that would assert for itself the ethic of providing citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing. That’s difficult to do when the very form of your discourse encourages you to create the fiction of a general audience and then serve that audience as if all its members understand and experience reality in the same way.

Hoyt told me he plans to write more on bias during his tenure as public editor. This column is a good start. But then I may be biased because I see myself as I understand myself in his column.

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5 Responses

  1. Tim 

    re: “My joke (or crack) about brain surgery should not be taken literally.”

    Yeah, I thought that was a poor choice of metaphor, given its history.

  2. acline 

    Tim… Yes but I mean “difficult” in a very particular way, and I’m making a specific comparison with professions in which practice is largely dictated by licensing authority. The journalistic canard “would you go to a…” is bogus precisely because journalism is not a profession. Anyone can (and should) practice it. That’s NOT to day it is easy. Further, journalists still don’t agree on what news is, or they define it in maddeningly fuzzy terms. No brain surgeon could work under those definitional conditions. Given the history that you point out, I probably should have said “rocket science.” :-)

  3. Tim 

    Yes, rocket science would have been better.

    Or next time you might say, “It’s not Pedagogy.”

  4. acline 

    Tim… haha! good one.

  5. CONGRATULATIONS ANDY! Now more than just SW MO knows you’re a credible source when it comes to media ethics and bias.