March 2, 2015

Journalism and Class Bias

I go long periods of time forgetting to update the oldest document on this website: my examination of structural bias in the news media. Jay Rosen’s post at PressThink today reminds me, again, that I need to add #10 to the list: class bias, specifically middle-class bias.

Rosen is writing about his recent appearance on CNN to discuss the situation with Bill OReilly at FOX News and why O’Reilly isn’t “in trouble” with his employer for fabrications similar to those made by Brian Williams on NBC. Here’s an important moment in his published notes:

Here, Roger Ailes exploited a weakness in establishment journalism that in 1996 was dimly understood by its practitioners— or not understood at all. There was a submerged ideology in American newsrooms, populated as they were by people who were more cosmopolitan than “country,” more secular than religious. Journalists in the U.S. were vaguely progressive in the sense of welcoming social change (up to a point) and identifying (up to a point) with those who had grievances against traditional authority. Certainly there weren’t many denizens of the American newsroom eager to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop,” or who had supported the Vietnam War, or who saw Ronald Reagan as a cultural hero. And there weren’t many alert to the ideological undertow in a mission statement still popular among journalists: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Critics on the left are correct to say that if this is liberalism it is very weak tea. But critics on the right are correct to say that it sure isn’t neutral professionalism. Roger Ailes understood that the “mainstream” journalists his network was built to attack had an ideology that they were unwilling to defend, because they had never recognized it as an ideology. Instead they used terms like “news values.” They talked about standards and credibility and objectivity and being a good professional. They still do this.

It’s not that these terms didn’t mean anything, but they couldn’t capture enough to account for the world view that did in fact prevail in American newsrooms and did in fact conflict with the way a portion of the country — the conservative portion — saw things. That is the conflict that gave rise to Fox News. It was partly due to a misrecognition by journalists of their own belief system. They aren’t as liberal as the cartoon characterizations that are now commonplace on the American right, but they aren’t successful at taking the view from nowhere, either.

Long-time readers of Rosen’s work will recognize this — before arriving at the third paragraph quoted — as his continued criticism of the “view from nowhere.” That view, along with many of the nine structural biases, creates much of the approach to news that some conservatives identify as liberal bias. I’m still on the record asserting this:

The press is often thought of as a unified voice with a distinct bias (right or left depending on the critic). This simplistic thinking fits the needs of ideological struggle, but is hardly useful in coming to a better understanding of what is happening in the world. I believe journalism is an under-theorized practice. In other words, journalists often do what they do without reflecting upon the meaning of the premises and assumptions that support their practice. I say this as a former journalist. I think we may begin to reflect upon journalistic practice by noticing that the press applies a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.

In Rosen’s quote above he identifies what I call middle-class bias — a socio-economic position driven in large part by the particular kind of education journalists achieve, i.e. “liberal” in the academic understanding of that term.

Middle-class bias structures professional practice in journalism because, as with the other structural biases, journalists understand the world through the lenses of their educations, their incomes, and their professional mythology — a narrative that springs directly from middle-class understandings of journalism’s role in a democratic republic. For more on the latter, Rhetorica readers should once again check out pages 55 to 61 of Herbert Gans’ book Democracy and the News where Gans identifies the parts of journalists’ theory (I call it mythology) of democracy:

In logical order, the theory consists of four parts: 1) the journalist’s role is to inform citizens; 2) citizens are assumed to be informed if they regularly attend to the…news journalists supply them; 3) the more informed citizens are, the more likely they are to participate politically…; 4) the more that informed citizens participate, the more democratic America is likely to be.

Middle class ideas. Middle class concerns. A middle class story.

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