There are several issues I’ll be tackling over the next few days, and I woke up this morning realizing I needed to say something more about political bias in the news media before I begin.
I agree with Jay Rosen that the debate over media bias is largely dumb. Part of the dumbness springs from the partisan nature of much of the debate, i.e. it’s about winning politically; it’s not about coming to a better understanding of what journalism is or ought to be.
But there is an important sense in which the debate is not dumb: The epistemology of journalism leads journalists to believe false ideas about language. And these false ideas lead directly to the kind of coverage that draws charges of bias. These false ideas are:
(From George Lakoff’s Moral Politics)
- Concepts are literal and nonpartisan.
- Language use is neutral.
- News can be reported in neutral terms
- Mere use of language cannot put anyone at a disadvantage.
- All readers and viewers share the same conceptual system.
You see, for any given news article: 1) There is no neutral headline, 2) There is no neutral lead, 3) There are no neutral terms, 4) There is no neutral frame or narrative.
Don’t have the wrong ah-ha! moment here. If one cares to really look hard at the textual evidence–and I have a stack of studies sitting on my desk right now more than 12 inches deep–one would see that there is plenty of evidence in the news media to support charges of bias from any political wing. To charge bias of one kind only for the entire news media is, then, one of three things: dumb, partisan, or both.
Any given case of political bias in journalism (from a news organization to a reporter)–and there are plenty!–should always be fought vigorously. What one should not do, however, is over-generalize or jump to conclusions.
You’ll often hear journalists say that if they piss off “both sides” then they must be doing their jobs right. And I just want to bitch-slap them when they say it. This silly notion springs directly from those false ideas about language.
What if journalists came to have a better understanding of language? What might happen if they embraced this idea: No objective point of view exists (none is possible; it’s not even a “worthy” ideal), so there are no neutral terms, structures, narratives, or frames with which to describe reality.
With that understanding in mind, writing headlines becomes a very different job. Structuring a news story becomes a very different job. Interviewing becomes a very different job. Writing it up becomes a very different job.
Here’s one big way it could be different: Journalistic practice would be understood to be a part of the news situation and require meta-reporting, i.e. reporting on reporting or a transparent (as possible) conversation about the role of reporting in civic affairs. In other words, the observer is no longer just an observer; the observer is a player; deal with it openly.
I’ll deal with specifics about how this might work in another post.